David McLaren on connecting dots

Before the Revolution

By David McLaren
Special to True North Perspective
David McLaren is an award-winning writer living at Neyaashiinigamiing on Georgian Bay. He has worked in government, in the private sector, with ENGOs (Environmental Non-Government Organizations) and First Nations. Comments on this and other essays are welcome at http://jdavidmclaren.wordpress.com/ 

On a hot August afternoon, a few years before the Revolution, Winston sat in his cubicle on the fifth floor of the Department trying to connect the dots. Connecting dots was not his job. That was the job of the Prime Leader’s Office. And now the PLO had just sent around a directive stating that all communications concerning the current debt crisis in the USand Europe must refer to the hard work this government had done to pare away its own debt. The memo had not actually said “the US and Europe”. It said, “the North Atlantic countries”, a term the PLO liked because it included Iceland andGreenland. The office wag had already dubbed the PLO’s phrase “Oceania”.

Winston’s problem was his own memo sent a short hour ago to O’Brien, his section head. It acknowledged the role the previous government had played a decade ago in reducing the country’s debt and eliminating its deficit. Obviously it couldn’t be the achievement of both this government and the previous one. Especially since the current government had already overspent its revenues digging out of the last recession and had, in the election just passed, promised to buy new jets and bigger jails.

He guessed without being told what had happened to his memo. O’Brien had strolled past his cubicle not ten minutes ago and asked him, in passing of course, if he had seen the PLO directive. As soon as he had brought it up on his computer, he knew. His memo had gone down the memory hole.

There was no actual memory hole; no opening down which obsolete or unwanted facts and arguments were thrown to be turned into a puff of smoke. What people in the office meant when they joked about the memory hole was the bureaucratic limbo where their memos and draft reports went to languish and, eventually, to be deleted from the corporate memory.

The same thing had happened on a much bigger scale to Winston’s arts file. One of the Department’s jobs had been to promote the nation’s arts industry in other countries and they had done so with an enthusiasm surpassed only by their blandishments for tech companies, especially the one that made the Blackberry. Then the word came down that the arts would no longer be a priority for international trade. Overnight the file disappeared down the memory hole. There was no declaration of the change in policy; no announcement of cuts to art export programs. But all the Department’s literature had to be re-written, re-printed and re-distributed; and, of course its website carefully purged.

The final memory loss took place one night. He came into work one morning and discovered the painting in the building’s lobby by that French artist – Winston could not now remember his name or if he, or she, was even French – was replaced by a portrait of Queen Elizabeth.

Winston spotted O’Brien going into his office. He would be asking him for his briefing on the London riots soon. The Minister wanted to visit London to work up a common message with other Oceaniac governments on the unrest in Europe. He’ll need to have something on the director’s desk by end of day that embraced the current government’s quiet and effective management of the country’s financial sector and contrasting that with the criminal rampages seen on the streets of Athens and now London.

But the images of London burning kept asserting themselves. He googled “London riots” – for research of course – and stared at the photos and videos of cars burning and masked youths rampaging through the streets.

It reminded him of Toronto in June 2010 during the G20. He had been in the city as part of the Canadian delegation and was caught up in the mayhem. On Yonge Street he saw black hooded thugs throw newspaper boxes through the window of a Royal Bank. The mask on one of the vandals slipped and he looked into the face of a girl no older than his own daughter. She grinned and gave him the finger.

On the news that night, the Chief of Police, the Mayor and the Premier called the demonstrators thugs and criminals. The next afternoon, Winston was crossing Queen St near Spadina, on his way to the Peter Pan restaurant to meet a colleague when he was caught in a police round-up. None of the people around him looked like thugs or criminals – more like his friends and neighbours. They even chatted about the weather, for a light rain had started. He showed a policeman with sergeant’s stripes his G20 pass and was bundled out of the crowd and allowed to go on his way.

The people he saw on the streets of London were as young as the vandal on Yonge Street. Scotland Yard and the PM were calling them thugs and hoodlums too. Was it true – were thousands of Oceania’s young citizens really closet criminals and were only now, for some unknown reason, suddenly demonstrating their criminality?

The London media had another label for the rioters, NEETs: not in education, employment or training. Were the proletariat rising up at last against capitalist excess? Certainly, the NEETS were at the bottom of the pile. The income gap between the bottom lot and the top in Oceania was huge – the richest ten percent made nine times that of the poorest ten percent – and getting wider. In America, CEO’s of large companies were making something like 600 times what their employees did and were in a lower tax bracket than their secretaries.

If the NEETs were pissed off by that, they weren’t telling anyone. They had no banners, no slogans, no leaders. Maybe they were pissed off and didn’t know it. Or maybe they knew it but didn’t know why. For all Winston knew, most of them couldn’t read or write; and if they couldn’t, how could they know what they felt, let alone why? Heavy physical work, if they could find it, the care of home and children, petty quarrels with neighbours, the telly, football, beer and now, rioting and looting, filled up the horizon of their minds.

They might not have education on their side, but they sure knew how to use their Blackberries to organize a mob. Winston felt a quick flush of pride for his own, albeit minor, role in promoting the little cell phone. Then a chill of fear when he realized that a mob was the only power the NEETs knew or ever had. Then he relaxed again when he figured out tha tuntil they became conscious they would never rebel, but until they had rebelled, they would never become conscious.

Winston wondered if Queen Elizabeth, whose portrait now hung in the foyer of his building, could smell the smoke from Tottenham at Buckingham. If she could, did she fear she might end her reign with the demise of what her namesake began?

Things hadn’t got to the point of riots in America yet, but the tinder was being set. The 2008 recession was brought on by investors playing with the American Dream; by rich people betting on whether poor people could afford their homes. The market’s plunge this summer was the collateral damage from America’s civil war over the Dream itself.

The Tea-Partiers had refused to compromise their idea of American prosperity through unregulated capitalism and untaxed wealth. “Don’t tread on me, (walk on someone else”) became their battle cry. With a little help from S&P, the Tea-Partiers won. America will cut and not tax.

Winston predicted a pyrrhic victory. It meant no further stimulus spending to bail out another recession and no additional revenues to pay for government programs which include, after all, the military, which has been busy battling a decades-long war with the Tea-Party’s arch foe – the Islamic world, or Urasia* according to the wag.

Now China was scolding the Americans for playing fiscal Russian roulette. Winston figured they had every right to do so since they held over a trillion dollars of their debt. But Eastasia (the wag’s word for China and India) was growing a middle class that would soon replace Oceania’s as consumers of the goods and services now being churned out of Eastasian plants. Plants that were built, ironically, by the flight of capital from Oceania chasing cheaper labour, lower taxes and higher profits.

Meanwhile, all levels of government courted those same companies by busting unions at home, lowering corporate tax rates and increasing the cost of education. Now 32 million Americans were functionally illiterate. That, and unions that couldn’t bargain benefits for PhD from Eastasia, have pretty much hollowed out Oceania’s own middle class and crippled the country’s ability to buy its own way out of recessions.

But these dots went way beyond Winston’s job description and connecting them was far above his pay grade. He took his connections and flushed them down his own, personal memory hole – he needed to write that report. He switched fromLondon burning to a blank screen. He stared at that until day’s end. He switched off the monitor and reached the elevator just as O’Brien came out of his office and walked toward his cubicle.

* After Ur, an ancient city of Mesopotamia in present day Iraq.

© David McLaren
August 2011

David McLaren is a writer living on the Bruce Peninsula in Ontario. The quotes from George Orwell’s 1984, can be found in Part 1, Chapter 6.

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