March 19, 2017
George Orwell Warned Us About Refugees Being Massacred in Boats by Helicopters, and He Predicted We’d Laugh
After Kellyanne Conway infamously used the term “alternative facts” on NBC’s Meet the Press on January 22nd, sales of George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 skyrocketed. Within three days of Conway’s remark –– which eerily resembled the “newspeak” rhetoric of Orwell’s classic –– The New York Times reported that sales of the book were up by 9,500 percent since the week prior.
While everyone was flocking to Orwell’s pages to pick out parallels between Big Brother and where we might be headed under a post-fact/post-shame Trump Administration, another chilling prophecy found in the first chapter of the work was overlooked by most readers; a prophecy that became even more startlingly relevant on March 17th when a Saudi helicopter opened fire on a boat of Somali refugees off the coast of Yemen, killing forty-two, including women and children.
In the opening pages of the novel, the protagonist, Winston Smith, begins writing in a journal, which is an act punishable by death in Oceania, the fictional totalitarian state where the book is set. Here is what Smith clandestinely scribbles:
April 4th, 1984. Last night to the flicks. All war films. One very good one of a ship full of refugees being bombed somewhere in the Mediterranean. Audience much amused by shots of a great huge fat man trying to swim away with a helicopter after him, first you saw him wallowing along in the water like a porpoise, then you saw him through the helicopters gunsights, then he was full of holes and the sea round him turned pink and he sank as suddenly as though the holes had let in the water, audience shouting with laughter when he sank. then you saw a lifeboat full of children with a helicopter hovering over it. there was a middle-aged woman might have been a jewess sitting up in the bow with a little boy about three years old in her arms. little boy screaming with fright and hiding his head between her breasts as if he was trying to burrow right into her and the woman putting her arms round him and comforting him although she was blue with fright herself, all the time covering him up as much as possible as if she thought her arms could keep the bullets off him. then the helicopter planted a 20 kilo bomb in among them terrific flash and the boat went all to matchwood. then there was a wonderful shot of a child’s arm going up up up right up into the air…
Even before the recent attack on Somali refugees, this passage was prescient due to the high number of refugees who have died while crossing the Mediterranean Sea in the past few years. Sure, they weren’t being bombed, but with the amount of photos flooding the news of drowned children washing up on beaches, they may as well have been. But never in our most apocalyptic nightmares could it have seemed possible that Orwell’s, or rather, Winston Smith’s words would be so closely met by reality as they were at 3am on the morning of March 17th when a Saudi helicopter opened up machine gunfire on a boat full of Somali refugees. The refugees were fleeing war, drought, and famine in Yemen, and were on their way to Sudan when their boat came under attack from the air in the dead of night. “Video of the aftermath showed dozens of slain migrants, along with others who suffered gunshot wounds, lost limbs, or had broken arms and legs,” reported The Chicago Tribune.
The horror of such an incident is impossible to imagine, though Orwell’s fictionalized description of a similar scene makes a strong attempt. Yes, in 1984 it was the Mediterranean, and not the Red Sea, and the woman was a “jewess,” and not a Muslim, but the overarching similarities between the two incidences are hard to ignore. Especially when people are currently reading Orwell for the very reason of finding undertones and warning signs showing where we might be headed if alternative versions of reality continue to be promoted by the most powerful people in our country.
The path towards authoritarianism cannot be paved with newspeak alone; there must also be an enemy to point to before a government can overreach its power under the pretenses of protecting the homeland. Of course the current administration is not short on those; Donald Trump would never have become president without his xenophobic attacks on Muslims and Mexicans who are pouring into our country to, at best, steal your job, and at worst, kill you in a horrific terrorist attack.
Conservative leaders are rising to power the world over by demonizing and dehumanizing “the other” while promising to close borders to vulnerable populations of people seeking a better life. This Somali refugee story only left a momentary blip on the news radar simply because we aren’t all that different from Orwell’s crowd watching a similar scene in “the flicks.” They were laughing; we just don’t seem to care. Dehumanization is a slow and incremental process, and we may be further down it than we realize. History proves to us time and again that human beings are more than capable of seeing other human beings as less-than, otherwise there could be no state-sanctioned apartheids, genocides, or holocausts. Donald Trump’s demonizing of Muslim peoples as Islamic terrorists and Mexicans as murderers and rapists is a crucial step in the process towards dehumanizing them. At this point we turn a blind eye to Somali refugees getting slaughtered, but as Orwell knew, if we strip them of even more of their humanity, we will be all too capable of laughing at their plight the next time it happens.
Condemning the populations of entire religions and countries is an alternative fact of the most heinous variety. We are being asked to stretch our minds beyond what any rational person knows to be true, and vilify enormous swaths of our own species who happen to look or pray a little differently than we do. Alarmingly, the minds of a significant number of human beings seem all too capable of this type of elasticity. And no one knew that better than George Orwell. He chillingly stated in 1984: “The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.”
While Orwell was trying to warn us about our overly controllable minds, the likes of the Donald Trumps and Steve Bannons and Kellyanne Conways of the world are trying to use our very minds against us. It’s true that we’re a long way from living in Orwell’s Oceania, but the pathway there seems to be a little better defined than usual. If you’re looking for a good way to steer yourself off that path, caring about innocent people getting gunned down in a boat is a good place to start. Orwell showed us that we would laugh at such a scene once our minds no longer belonged to us. Let’s do the opposite and mourn for those lost, and try to make a world where something like that happening is as unimaginable as it should already be.
June 4, 2016
Like the rest of the world, I’ve had Muhammad Ali on the mind since his death this past Friday. And for good reason. It’s obvious why Ali had the impact on the world that he did, but what feels less obvious is why even someone like me, a white kid born in the ‘80s, feels his legacy as strongly as I do. I wasn’t there for his heyday. I’m not black. I’m not a Muslim. I’ve never been drafted in a war. I don’t particularly care for boxing. I do care about social justice and pacifism, so the connection is there, but I don’t feel that entirely explains it.
What has caused me to watch so much footage of Muhammad Ali in his prime? To be equally captivated by his fights as I am by his interviews? Why is When We Were Kings my all-time favorite documentary, and perhaps even my favorite film altogether? I think I know. I believe it’s because the entire human race responds viscerally when we witness a person who is truly alive. A person whose spirit is bursting from the confines of their physical body. Someone who clearly isn’t missing the opportunity of experiencing the life they were given. We all have one. A life. But most of us don’t shine. We could, but we don’t. We wait. We imagine that someday conditions will become more favorable for us to finally shine in the way that our spirits have long begged us to. But we don’t listen.
Ali shone. It seems to me that the world is somewhat relieved by his passing, because now he can be remembered in the way we all want to remember him. He can be immortalized as perhaps the brightest light any of us have ever seen. Ali only had so long to shine before Parkinson’s Disease took away his voice and his body. But man did he shine while the power was on. You get the sense when you watch him that you are seeing the purest realization of human potential. He was so present. He knew himself so well. Whatever challenge presented itself to him he was ready for. He never seemed to need to stop and look inwards to find out what he actually felt. He was fully himself, and he was blinding to witness.
Our minds can be so confining. They are full of tricks, ruts, pitfalls. We’re too often our own greatest foes. But what happens when we become our greatest ally? How do we outsmart what makes us smart? Muhammad Ali did it with a superhuman confidence in himself. I believe he was often talking to his own mind more than his opponents when he would wax poetic (and prolific) about how he was gonna whoop him. I believe he learned to master fear, to stay on high ground, to float above the ruts and precipices of his self-doubts. Ali floated, he floated like a, like a…I can’t for the life of me think of a good metaphor here, but man did he float.
Life gives us opportunities. We all get some. Every so often the world reveals its jaw to us. Something that once felt impossible or unattainable is suddenly right there, the jaw is exposed, and all we need to do is be brave enough to lunge forward and sting it! Strike out and sting like a, like a…I don’t know, metaphors fail me today. Regret comes from seeing that moment, and knowing we didn’t lift up our gloves when it was there. I sincerely doubt Muhammad Ali had any regrets.
Muhammad Ali, amongst so many tangible and obvious actions and lessons, taught us what shining looks like. If you’re reading this, I have to assume the power is still turned on inside of you. What do you already know you want to do with it?