It’s been almost 70 years since English novelist Eric Arthur Blair, writing under the pseudonym George Orwell, penned “1984,” his famous dystopian novel which depicted life in Oceania, a state in perpetual war with omnipresent government surveillance, strict state control of the media, and cynical government manipulation of the populace. The state prosecutes “thought crime” and independent thinking. The “Inner Party” strictly controls policy, even as members of the “Outer Party” fill other bureaucratic slots in order to keep the state functioning. Historical revisionism is rife and alliances shift rapidly. After years of war against Eurasia, Oceania’s policy suddenly switches, hence the declarative statement, “Oceania was at war with Eastasia: Oceania had always been at war with Eastasia,” no matter the reality of previous years.
Orwell wrote his masterpiece in the wake of World War II and against the backdrop of the expansion of communism throughout Eastern Europe and its attempts to make inroads into Western Europe. The reason why “1984” remains so relevant today, however, is that uncomfortable takes on “fake news” and government disdain for individual liberty remain too real in too many places. After President Donald Trump’s inauguration, “1984” shot up the rankings on Amazon, leading the publisher to print an additional 70,000 copies.
Whatever disdain people might have for Trump and his unwillingness to confront even the reality of his past statements and positions, the United States is not Oceania and any suggestion otherwise is an exaggeration. The judiciary is independent and the media free. What countries then come closest to the Oceania of Orwell’s creation?
North Korea is, of course, the most totalitarian country on earth. Foreign media consumption is not allowed. Children are indoctrinated from birth, if not from North Korean schools than by their own families who fear the consequence of any question or remark, however innocent, that could contradict or somehow cross the Dear Leader’s line. Dissidence, real or suspected, will lead to punishment not only for the individual but for generations of his or her family. Heroes one day transform into “despicable human scum.”
Turkmenistan, at least under the late leader Turkmenbashi, came close. He named days and months after himself and his family, and constructed a gold statue that rotated with the sun. But, while Turkmenbashi sought absolute obedience, his regime was more authoritarian than totalitarian. Eritrea, too, is authoritarian in the extreme — especially with regard to press freedom and free expression — but is not organized enough to be truly totalitarian.
If Orwell were alive today, the country which might best conform to “1984” might well be Turkey. The issue isn’t simply President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s corruption or authoritarianism. In that, he is really no different from Russian President Vladimir Putin or Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro. Rather, it is how Erdogan has seized control of the media in order to impose narratives that change as rapidly as Oceania’s wars against Eastasia and Eurasia. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was Erdogan’s best-friend, for example, until he wasn’t. But woe to any Turk that points out how Erdogan cultivated Assad and even vacationed with him. Turkey’s relationship with Russia is enough to give any observer whiplash, moving from cautious trade partners to sanctions and military bluster to the tightest of allies over the course of a year.
Erdogan has seized control of the media in order to impose narratives that change as rapidly as Oceania’s wars against Eastasia and Eurasia.
The same has become especially apparent in the aftermath of the July 15, 2016 abortive coup, which Erdogan blames on friend-turned-rival Fethullah Gülen, a US-based theologian. After the Erdogan-Gülen dispute about finances and corruption spilled into the open in 2013, the Erdogan-controlled Turkish press turned on a dime, ascribing ever-more outlandish conspiracies to a man with whom they were infatuated just months before. Remember, just a few years earlier, Turkish police were seeking the author and all copies of an unpublished manuscript critical of Gülen. While the book was unpublished — and therefore no libel had occurred — Erdogan and Turkey’s police sought to prosecute the case because, at the time, to think negatively about Gülen or his followers was intolerable. But that was then and this is now. Erdogan and his press today ascribe a name — the Fethullahist Terror Organization — to his organization and hundreds of thousands of his followers and demand the Turkish press pick up the narrative. The state propels the same accusations they once sought to suppress. In effect, Erdogan has always been at war with Eastasia. Likewise, even though Erdogan’s coup-night narrative is full of holes, Turkish journalists and academics are not allowed to ask questions about the inconsistencies.
The scariest part of Turkey’s descent into Orwellianism is how many people outside Turkey have been willing to play along. Some American institutions seem to find little wrong in Erdogan’s theories, or they self-censor because they seek donations from firms Erdogan or his family members control. Individual analysts at best remain silent and at worst affirm Erdogan’s theories in the press because they maintain energy sector or consulting contracts and prefer not to antagonize the Turkish president, whatever their private thoughts might be. Turkish-born analysts equivocate because they worry that Erdogan might retaliate against their families. Some Western journalists self-censor to maintain access, and even Freedom House appears at best to lack moral clarity and at worst side with access over censorship.
What has happened in Turkey is tragic. The issue is no longer simply freedom of speech but rather freedom of thought. As tens of thousands are jailed and more than 100,000 fired, even more have become non-persons, no longer entitled to jobs, school, legal representation, or government benefits — all because of suspicions about what they think. Meanwhile, those who want to get ahead or even merely survive must parrot Erdogan’s lines, no matter how contradictory they might have been to those the president muttered only weeks or months before. Time in Turkey is running backwards, and the country increasingly seems mired in 1984.