Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Emmanuel Goldstein

I've been thinking recently about Emmanuel Goldstein. In George Orwell's novel 1984 Emmanuel Goldstein is the arch-enemy of Big Brother and leader of an underground resistance movement. But it becomes clear as the novel goes on that Goldstein, to the extent that he exists at all, is actually a tool that Big Brother uses to control and eliminate resistence. Or is he?

This is where interpretation struggles to break free from the author. In Orwell's world, Big Brother is invincible and hope is ultimately crushed. But it seems to me, and it's possible that Orwell intended this, that Emmanuel Goldstein does exert a counter-cultural influence on his society even if he is purely a device the government uses to control the masses. Even if this is true, he touches something in the human spirit and creates hope. Of course, unfulfilled hope is itself a tool that can be exploited to keep the masses in line, but hope is a dangerous thing that always threatens to break free and create something new and uncontrolled.

The recent event that got me thinking about Emmanuel Goldstein was an account I heard of Bob Geldof's remarks before the Live 8 concert. Geldof reported a conversation with Bono in which he marveled at Live 8 being "a final push" rather than an outreach for broader public awareness as previously conceived. This remark struck me as very odd because other than "W" giving public support to Tony Blair's debt cancellation plan (which isn't as sweeping as is needed) it didn't seem to me as if anything had changed. Geldof's remark seemed to be formulated to make people feel good about something that hadn't actually been done. Mission accomplished?

Then more recently I received an e-mail from the ONE campaign with the subject line "You Did It!" What I did was to convince the US Senate to vote 100 million dollars for AIDS relief in Africa. I don't really know the facts on this one, but on the scale of the needs for aid in Africa and the scale of government spending, this didn't really seem all that earthshaking. Especially when compared to:

Finally, last week I read Marshall Frady's little biography of Martin Luther King, Jr. Frady gave a fair amount of attention to SNCC's frustration with King's moderate approach. This brought to mind Howard Zinn's characterization of King in his A People's History of the United States where he all but says King was an unwitting puppet in the hands of the Kennedy administration. Frady's perspective gave a little more balance to the situation, but between the two of them I was able to imagine myself as an earlier sixties civil rights supporter with an uncertain view of what King was really accomplishing.

Of course, Howard Zinn not withstanding, I think history shows clearly what King was actually accomplishing. From my viewpoint in history, he was certainly Moses. But I can imagine that during his lifetime he may have looked a bit like Emmanuel Goldstein.

And this is true of Jesus and all the prophets as well.

I'm not sure where this leaves me. Perhaps the most I can say is that it gives me a new appreciation for the fact that I cannot see today the full effect of what is being done today. The work of God unfolds in history through the work of men and women and we only rarely catch glimpses of it.

The system will always try to co-opt hope for its own purposes, but hope has a power all its own. It may even be that Operation Iraqi Freedom will end up liberating the people of Iraq in spite of the best efforts of the Ministry of Love.


Christopher said...

That was interesting, I guess I've always unabashedly bought into the MLK myth hook line and sinker. Comparing him to Goldstein is a little sad... but your comments on hope... Hope is a damn dangerous thing whenever it is allowed to flourish. The sight of a single pretty flower in grey cement can undo years of institutional drugery (okay I'm romanticizing). I need to read more Zinn, I've only read stuff about early American history.
Keep up hope my friend.

Andy said...

Zinn leans heavily in the socialist direction, and I think sometimes you have to take what he says with a grain of salt. I definitely think the civil rights movement would have shot itself in the foot without King's moderation, which the SNCC contingent (which later gave birth to the Black Panthers) complained about. But Zinn's insight that major personalities aren't really the driving force of history is certainly useful as a point of comparison.

If you have access to a copy of "A People's History" read the chapter called "Or Does It Explode?" It's very good.