Wednesday, September 11, 2013

A Dredd Revisited: 1984 Is All About Control

I generally avoid reading novels or watching movies twice.  There’s so much new material out there that I figure I don’t have much time to cover old ground.  And yet, after giving George Orwell’s 1984 another read in August, it seems I’ve joined a cohort of people who, as a headline with the International Business Times stated, are revisiting this classic novel: George Orwell’s 1984 Book Sales Soar 6000% on Edward Snowden NSA Prism Data Leak.  

But that’s NOT the reason I downloaded 1984 on my iPhone.  Before I tell you why, I want to share three general things I realized by revisiting this classic:

First, I read this book in the late 1980s during high school.  Ever since then, I’ve had the impression that Big Brother equals big government.  This is false.  Big Brother is the thought control of the Party.  And it is the Party in 1984 that control’s Oceania’s government.

Second, I still remembered that famous refrain from the novel, “Big Brother is watching you.”  I’ve always had the impression that Big Brother is watching everyone in their homes via telescreens.  This is also false.  Only members of the Party have telescreens in their homes.  The masses, known as the Proles (which I assume to be a shortened word for Proletariat), are for the most part left alone by Big Brother.  The Proles do all the menial labor.  The Proles live in poverty.  The Proles are NOT worth watching.

Third, I’ve also had the impression that telescreens are the driving idea of 1984.  This, alas, is also false.  Thought control is the driving idea.  And members of the Party are absolutely terrified of the thought police.  The reason for telescreens is to enforce thought control.  Hence, telescreens are not about spying, or invading privacy (there is no privacy for a Party member unless you’re part of the Inner Party).  Telescreens are a means of control.  Orwell intensifies the idea of thought control with a concept which I believe most prophetic (even more so than his telescreens): doublethink.  When I hear people claiming that U.S. President Barack Obama is not a citizen despite the evidence of his Hawaiian birth certificate, I label them espousers of doublethink.  Facts are to be disregarded, contradictions must be accepted without hesitation, because reality is whatever the Party wants it to be.  And that reality is achieved with doublethink.  Such is the extent of thought control.     

So now I come to my reason for giving 1984 a second read:  The movie Dredd had me thinking about thought control.  Back in June I watched my Dredd BluRay five days in a row.  How mind boggling.  I got hooked into a loop of Dredd and could not break free.  Something in my subconscious demanded that I find out why this movie had such control over my time. 

Then the epiphany came after my final screening:  Dredd is an anvil-splitting refutation of 1984’s thought control.  What I mean by this is that Orwell focused on a totalitarian process of controlling the way a person thinks.  The torture of Winston, 1984’s protagonist, ultimately leads to a successful brain washing.  Winston, a thought criminal who despises the Party, ultimately loves Big Brother in the end.  Thought control, then, is an Orwellian evil.  Any intrusion into an individual’s thoughts is the ultimate injustice.  Dredd, on the other hand, makes the opposite case.  Thought control, in fact, is a tool for justice when used to guarantee an individual’s liberty.  That’s why I think the contrast between these stories is riveting.

The 2012 movie adaptation of the Judge Dredd comics begins with a Control Drone flying over Mega-City One to spot crime.  Unlike 1984’s dystopian future where the Proles are ignored by Big Brother, Dredd drones are watching the masses in order to protect the innocent.  Control is a word used time and again in both stories, but even more so in Dredd.  A Judge’s motorbike can “activate crowd control.”  Dredd communicates with “Control” at the Hall of Justice.  Mega-housing blocks have control rooms that operate each building.  There’s even a Judge who states, “You better get control fast, or I’m slapping you with an obstruction of justice charge, five years in the iso-cubes, mandatory.”

In 1984, control is achieved by forcing members of the Party to accept doublethink:  You must conform by accepting contradiction and relinquishing individual thought.  If you think for yourself, it’s considered a thoughtcrime.  When Winston is told by the telescreen not to move after he is detained by the thought police, Orwell never describes what’s on the other side of that screen.  I think Dredd’s Hall of Justice is that other side of the screen.  You see rows of control operators who access information on perps.  The Judges are in constant contact with “Control” when reporting a crime in progress.  Sector Control, in fact, is the eyes and ears of the Mega-City One.  Control is achieved by following the law.  And for Judge Dredd himself, there is no gray area.  When he’s saddled with a rookie that failed her exam, Dredd states, “She failed.  Why is she here?”  Dredd sees the law as black and white, without contradiction.  The Chief Judge replies that Anderson’s fail was “marginal” and that her psychic abilities could prove an asset.  The Chief Judge’s assessment is an exercise in freedom of thought.  A fail is not black and white since there is still the potential to pass.  

Dredd’s dystopian vision of the future is a constant fight for control, and the law is losing.  Whereas in 1984, the Party is winning by eliminating anyone who is a thought criminal.  And the leading thought criminals in Orwell’s novel are Winston and Julia.  They are lovers who fight against Big Brother.  They spend their lives pretending to be Party members, but they secretly engage in the subversive activity of thinking for themselves.  So unlike Winston and Julia, Dredd and Anderson have a professional relationship as Judges.  They spend their lives enforcing the law, and they fight against Ma Ma who subverts order by selling the narcotic Slo Mo.  Whereas Big Brother has no interest in thought control over the masses, Ma Ma’s drug is a mind controlling substance for the masses.  

At the Peach Trees complex the Ma Ma Clan takes over an entire building by murdering the workers in the control room.  And since there are cameras on every floor, the Ma Ma Clan can hunt the Judges.  But there are no cameras in private rooms, so the Judges are at the mercy of citizens to hide them.  But there’s nowhere to hide when Ma Ma has threatened to kill anyone who protects a Judge.  Such a violent consequence is also how the thought police keep control in 1984.  Members of the Party live in absolute fear of what will happen to them if they are caught for having independent thoughts.  And that’s the rub of Orwell’s novel.  The thought police have no real way of knowing what a person is actually thinking.  They are adept at reading facial expressions, or listening to what someone says in their sleep, or getting neighbors to report an overheard remark.  Yet Anderson, the rookie Judge, has psychic abilities to actually read someone else’s thoughts.  She is the key to a different kind of thought control.

When Anderson goes into the mind of an arrested perp, she sees him thinking of raping her.  She retaliates so forcefully he pees his pants.  Though he tries to hide his thoughts, she exercises her psychic form of thought control.  She forces her way into his memories and finds the reason why Ma Ma wants him dead instead of having him interrogated at the Hall of Justice:  so he can’t reveal that Peach Trees is the manufacturing base of Slo Mo for the entire city.  This is why Ma Ma massacred an entire floor of innocents.  She wanted the Judges and her own gang member dead at any cost to protect her manufacturing and distribution center.  Ma Ma has proven herself to be just as ominous as Big Brother.  Her gang is just gruesome as the Party.

In 1984, the dreaded Room 101 is the torture room where a Party member is brainwashed to love Big Brother.  It’s a brutal and sadistic place where electro shocks are administered to maximize pain.  Winston is so physically broken his torturer can simply reach in his mouth and pull out a tooth.  And Winston knows, once a Party member is broken, then he or she will be shot in the back of the head.  Ma Ma’s torture, on the other hand, is skinning her enemies, then hitting them with Slo Mo before tossing them from a 200 story high balcony.  And Slo Mo, as the Peach Trees medic describes, “Makes the brain feel as if time is passing at one percent its normal speed.  Guess it felt like a long way down.” 

The Party uses techniques of thought control to defeat enemies of Big Brother, while Judge Anderson uses psychic thought control to defeat Ma Ma.  By intruding into another perp’s mind, she learns that he is a victim who is forced to help the Ma Ma Clan.  Dredd’s assumption about his criminality is wrong.  He is almost victimized twice.  And that’s the critical rub in Dredd.  Intruding into thoughts is a reliable way for a psychic Judge to dispense justice.  Anderson has protected the innocent in a way the Hall of Justice cannot.  The psychic Anderson is not just a Judge, she is the vanguard of a new type of thought police.  A psychic can control the mind in a limited, targeted, and feasibly painless way (if the perp cooperates) in order to extract information.

Dredd, then, is a refutation of Orwell’s thought control.  It gives the other side of the argument in the use of telescreens.  Intrusive technology, even when subverted by Ma Ma, is still necessary for justice to be served.  Otherwise chaos would reign in Mega-City One.  In a future of limited resources, overpopulation, and high unemployment, Dredd points out, “Twelve serious crimes reported every minute, seventeen thousand per day, we can respond to around six percent.”  The psychics can be a tool for law enforcement.  And unlike the thought police who are secret and unknown, the psychics can be clearly identified in the uniforms of Judges.  As Anderson tells Dredd, she is driven to make a difference.

In the end of Orwell’s novel there isn’t a higher calling for the use of thought control.  Winston is reprogrammed to believe 2+2=5.  He has no freedom of thought.  Reality is whatever the Party says it is.  Orwellian control is so absolute that it ensures an individual is totally brainwashed.  But Judge Dredd gives the rookie a pass even though she got an automatic fail for losing her gun to a perp.  Dredd accepts that the law is not black and white, that it is not absolute.  This is how Dredd makes the case for freedom of thought despite a world of telescreens and Control Drones. 

Thought control is evil, but in Dredd it is a necessary evil.  

By Mark Schelske