Tuesday, 23 January 2018

A surreal, Orwellian circus

The catastrophe in America right now must lead us all to question democracy. After several thousand years of human of civilisation, the best political system we can come up with delivers us a world leader animated primarily by hatred, fear, and mendacity.

And with a very average hair-cut.

How could it have come to this?

George Orwell's novels, and their brilliant depiction of the way our rulers manipulate truth, contain a dark vision of how this slide into chaos can come about.

If you look at the evolution of political systems over the last several thousand years, starting with the Greeks, you can make a convincing argument for progress.

The Greek concept of democracy; one citizen, one vote, although founded upon a sub-class of slaves, and forbidding women from taking part, nonetheless formed the template for most political systems to come.

It formalised the notion that power should be spread among the populace, and that the citizenry should be able to regularly revoke a mandate given to its rulers. Not a bad start.

With the Magna Carta in Britain further enshrining the rights of citizens against the powerful, and the Westminster system of government side-lining monarchs (destined thereafter to largely shrivel away) humanity managed to come up with a system that seemed to be reaching a kind of humane equilibrium.

Enter imperialism, on a global scale.

It became clear in the 19th century that the next major impediment to civility, peace and justice for all, was the rivalry of nation states in competition for global colonial dominance. After two world wars, and nearly 100 million dead, humanity devised an international order and protocol - the UN - for preventing further such catastrophes.

The problem of warfare became even more pressing, with the advent of a massive arsenal of nuclear weapons, capable of wiping out all of humanity, several times over.

Communism seemed to have been a historic aberration, and after the collapse of the Soviet system, its manifestly corrupt and tyrannical aspects appeared to have condemned it to a footnote to history. Putin, seizing on the historic affection among Russians for 'strong leadership' exploited the post-Soviet chaos to establish a malign populist oligarchy, which has aptly been described as a 'mafia state'.

Paradoxically, we now trust the political leader of an officially communist state, China, to behave more responsibly than we do the leader of the world's most powerful democracy.

China has radically tempered its communist theology with a practical state-sponsored capitalism that delivers increasing material rewards to consumerist hungry citizens. Again, its authoritarian past lends it to models of top-down rule, and appears for now, to be keeping most of its citizens happy, or at least pacified by increasing standards of living.

To what do we ascribe the bizarre paradox of a 'communist' state, China, being a more stable force for world peace than America?

The damning answer, in my view - is the American education system.

The incapacity of 53 million Americans to see through the subterfuge; the manipulated Facebook posts; the flagrant falsehoods being propagated on the presidential campaign trail is truly remarkable.

And it points to an abysmal failure of the American education system. Systematic, critical thinking - the capacity to see through the lies of the powerful based on a shrewd assessment of the facts available and the credibility of their sources, is the cardinal role of a schooling system in a democracy.

George Orwell wrote his classic novels 'Animal Farm', and '1984' to warn the populace against malign fictions propagated by a nation's leaders. These books were a ruler to the blackboard of democracy. Double-Think, a term from '1984', refers to the habit of autocrats to repeat a lie so often it begins to resemble a truth.

The American President and his officials (and his allies in the Kremlin) have developed this Double-Think to a whole new level, never before witnessed in a mature democracy. The spectacle of a string of senior officials exiting from the White House, while trying to square the circle of falsehoods has the appearance of a surreal, Orwellian circus.

Until an urgent diagnosis is done of the American education system, and what grievous short-comings in its priorities and curricula has lead to this stunted critical capacity in so large a proportion of its populace, we are likely to have the USA continue to lead the world's democracies catastrophically off-course.

George Orwell's novels, and their brilliant satire on the corruption of political rulers, need to be urgently re-instated at the core of Western education systems.

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