Reflecting on truth, politics and George Orwell, novelist Stephen Orr asks: why do governments need to advertise like brand-name fashion accessories and junk food?
“How could they find out that their tea and coffee, their sugar and flour, had been doctored; that their canned peas had been coloured with copper salts, and their fruit jams with aniline dyes?” – Upton Sinclair
One of the few benefits of unemployment is the availability of time to ponder, reflect and ask questions about the sort of society we live in. Sitting on park benches, studying the motions of dogs, and politicians, can be informative.
For one, people tend to leave shit when it drops in the garden, but make some attempt to pick it up (or pretend to) when it settles on a path. The dog itself, I think, is oblivious. It’s all about value judgements; the way we get along, feel the need to accommodate each other, practice a common decency. But increasingly, I think, life’s all about being seen to do the right thing; the possession, perfection and trumpeting of virtue (or what passes for it).
Every time I think of the truth I think of George Orwell. An over-quoted writer now, but one who understood the true nature of politics. That orthodoxies are invented, cultivated, and defended at all costs. Marx might have been well-meaning, but Stalin, Zedong and Pol Pot had other ideas. That individual truths (2 + 2 = 4) are secondary to a sort of Groupthink that allows corporations, governments, slimy business types, over-renumerated public servants and committee-sitters the opportunity to fortify their personal ramparts, generally at the cost of the less well-off, less connected, less slimy.
Orwell’s Everyman was 1984’s Winston Smith, a man whose memories and intuitions doomed him in a world of lies. Big Brother’s moustache was the authoritarian state, but most governments prefer the clean-shaven approach. Smith’s job was to rewrite history, edit papers and remove uncomfortable truths about the past and present that didn’t sit well with the ruling elite (read Politburo, Adelaide Club, parts of the SA ALP that seem to have forgotten their roots). The sort of thing that goes on every day in our own society.
“Brand advertising generally involves a high creative content, endeavours to change behaviour or attitudes [my emphasis], and is of a mid- to long-term appearance …” (Department of the Premier and Cabinet Circular 009: The Master Media Scheme for Government Advertising)
I learned about Orwell, and his ideas, from some excellent English and history teachers. I accepted his ideas as my own orthodoxy. Even now, more than 30 years later. So I’ve never really understood how others have missed the point of what Orwell/Smith was saying.
‘The proles had stayed human. They had not become hardened inside. They had held on to the primitive emotions which he himself had to relearn by conscious effort.’ (1984)
Conscious effort. As I mentioned, the out-of-work have plenty of time to think. For instance, about how orthodoxies require compliance, and compliance requires persuasion. The proles (me included) tend to resort to ‘primitive emotions’ too often, and this has to be sorted. We tend to look out for each other more than is helpful. Modern life requires self-interest, the ability to use words creatively, plot, make alliances. All of which leads to propaganda, and poor old Winston, sitting in his own park, having his own thoughts.
According to the Government Communications Plan and Media Expenditure, the SA government spent $34.1 million (excluding GST) on advertising in 2016-2017. The functional component of this was probably necessary (advertising for tenders, jobs, the benefits of vaccinating your kids etc), but as for the brand advertising … I’ve never understood why South Australians are happy to allow tens of millions of our hard-earned (and recycled) dollars to be spent on this. I assume the only people who need to go on about how great a job they’re doing are the ones most worried about how shit a job they’re doing.
This is the pathetic attempt to persuade us of state Labor’s correctness. To encourage our acceptance of an orthodoxy where thousands of jobs are created every day, where any naysaying (like this) is just a terribly unhelpful chip-on-one’s-shoulder, where kids should stay active, despite their fenced-off ovals, where meritocracy rules (despite the same few names, again and again), where Oakden never happened, where towers on the skyline compensate for the grim desperation in some of our outer suburbs. Winston spent more and more time feeling uneasy about his job.
“His eyes refocused on the page. He discovered that while he sat helplessly musing he had also been writing, as though by automatic action. And it was no longer the same cramped, awkward handwriting as before. His pen had slid voluptuously over the smooth paper, printing in large neat capitals: DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER …” (1984)
This all came to me when I sat watching yet another government ad (thanks to the Premier’s Communication Advisory Group and their ‘extensive and diverse range of external marketing communications strategies and programs’) showing a happy family in some sort of outback living room enjoying the benefits of the South Australian government’s lithium ion battery. Presumably a short drive from Ayr Street, Jamestown, and Norrie Carmichael’s barber shop. High production values. Authorised by you know who. And I thought, Why?
I thought of the television ads I’d seen for schools, hospitals, on bus shelters, television and radio. Why? It’s not like we don’t know they run schools, hospitals, police. When did governments need to sell themselves like Oroton purses, or Big Macs?
Winston Smith works in the Records Department of the Ministry of Truth. I once saw it on Flinders Street, invited to speak with Education Minister Weatherill about my concerns with public schools. Not a career-enhancing move. I felt like Tillotson, the trouble maker in Winston’s department (it never ends well for these people).
The feeling was then, and now, that the bureaucracy is too big for anyone to challenge; the ideas too firmly set in concrete; the nepotism too ingrained. But here were hundreds of Matryoshka dolls, John Malkovich watching himself watching himself, 1984’s perfect citizen Comrade Ogilvy dead in action at 23. And the feeling that the orthodoxy was immovable. So why had I been invited? Was this my Nikolai Yezhov moment?
I gild the lily. So what? I’ve got plenty of time for that sort of thing. But any student of history can see there’s always an uneasy relationship between government and media. No one would like to be in the position where rent-seeking media hide the bad news, and glorify the good. A cause for rejoicing! Adelaide. Breathe. Astronauts headed for a decent barra and chardy lunch on the Peninsula. This, apparently, is an idea that’s impossible to ignore (except, of course, if you’re busy selling your own shards to pay your power bill). All branded with a nice logo we can put on our flags and stationery.
Orwell’s 1984 was originally meant to be titled The Last Man in Europe. The last man who refused to follow the orthodoxy, to say what’s meant to be said. Orwell granted him love, but took it away, because in the end love dies before truth. But it feels so comfortable, doesn’t it, allowing the music and images to wash over you.
Anway, there I am watching my daily dose of The Chase. A question about the last man in the Atlantic, Robinson Crusoe, unable to get off his ever-diminishing island, the head hunters coming to get him. Still, I’m happy. I’ve learned to love the bomb. I’ll put this in a bottle and throw it in the sea, and someday someone might read it.
‘It was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.’