Here Comes Trouble: Stories from My Life

"Outstanding…Moore Triumphs! Publishers Weekly

Mike & Friends Blog

Barry Eisler

Former CIA agent Barry Eisler is the author of many books, including the New York Times bestseller 'Fault Line' and its forthcoming sequel 'Inside Out'

July 20th, 2010 5:46 PM

The Ministry of Truth

Recently, I had the good fortune to be invited by NPR to submit an essay on a favorite thriller of mine. I decided to write about George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, which is both an excellent thriller and an increasingly powerful and relevant political warning -- a combination readers of my latest novel, Inside Out, will know I find appealing.

Though I'm of course pleased that NPR decided to run the essay (which you can find here, along with an unrelated radio interview I did with Michelle Norris on All Things Considered), I'm also disappointed that NPR insisted on watering down the essay through successive drafts. The NPR editor I was in touch with, Miriam Krule, found the first three drafts "too political" (my response -- that an essay on Nineteen Eighty-Four that's too political is like an essay about the Bible that's too much about God -- was unpersuasive), and though Ms. Krule didn't articulate the precise nature of her objections, the parts of the essay that had to go nicely demonstrate what in this context "too political" really means. Here are two versions of the offending penultimate paragraph, neither of which NPR deemed acceptable:

As prescient as Orwell was about events, though, I believe his purpose wasn't so much to forecast the future, which might take many forms, as it was to describe human nature, which is immutable. So no, we don't have quite the kind of organized Two Minutes' Hate depicted in the novel, but it's impossible to recall the populace turning on our NATO ally France before our misadventure in Iraq, or more recently on our NATO ally Turkey over the Gaza flotilla incident, and not remember the scene in the book where a crowd instantly and obediently redirects its hostility from Eurasia to Eastasia. It's impossible to watch pundits like Tom Friedman, Jeffrey Goldberg, Charles Krauthammer, and Bill Kristol—who were wrong about everything in Iraq—still being taken seriously as this time they agitate for war with Iran, and not imagine the bureaucrats at the Ministry of Truth sending the historical record down the memory hole for incineration. And it's impossible to look at people who can't see the obvious parallels I just described and not see Party members vigorously practicing their doublethink, by which they have "the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.

Most of all, we have the language—the "newspeak"—Orwell predicted. No, there's no Ministry of Truth, but such an institution would anyway seem superfluous given that The New York Times, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post all now refuse to use the word "torture" to describe waterboarding, beatings, and sleep deprivation of prisoners, adopting instead the government-approved phrase "enhanced interrogation techniques" (as Chris Hayes of The Nation has observed, this is like calling rape "unilateral physical intimacy"). Even NPR, alas, has banned "torture" from its reporting. Escalation in Iraq is a "surge," prisoners are "detainees," assassinations are "targeted killings," and the 60,000 barrel-a-day ongoing undersea oil eruption is nothing but a "spill" or "leak." As bad as it is, imagine how much worse it might be if Orwell hadn't warned against it.

NPR wasn't objecting to my argument (Nineteen Eighty-Four's political warning is relevant today); they were objecting to my evidence (Tom Friedman et al's mistakes are disposed of as though via a memory hole; NPR and other named organizations are using government-approved Orwellian language). This matters not only because an argument's persuasiveness depends (at least to a rational audience) on what evidence is offered in support. It matters too because preferences like the ones Ms. Krule expressed tend to reveal an otherwise hidden media ideology, one more important and insidious than the left/right labels that are the dominant -- and distracting -- prism by which we generally classify people's politics. If you want to understand the politics of NPR and other such organizations, forget for a moment left/right, and focus instead on what might loosely be called an establishment ideology, for NPR is an establishment media player following establishment media norms.

What do I mean by "establishment media"? Newsweek's Evan Thomas, in the course of declaring himself an establishment journalist, put it well:

By definition, establishments believe in propping up the existing order. Members of the ruling class have a vested interest in keeping things pretty much the way they are. Safeguarding the status quo, protecting traditional institutions, can be healthy and useful, stabilizing and reassuring.

At the government's urging, NPR has adopted Orwellian speech. It prefers to suppress this decision rather than debate it. It extends its injunction to similar decisions of peer organizations -- specifically, the New York Times, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post. No matter how outlandishly wrong and destructive a pundit's predictions have been subsequently proven, NPR believes it unacceptably indecorous for the pundit in question to be held accountable by name. Generally speaking, NPR is okay with evidence that might loosely be classified as "what," while being not at all okay with evidence that might loosely be classified as "who." I can't think of any media behaviors more revealing than these of an establishment ideology and bias.

Before the rise of the blogosphere, a writer had no real means of rejoinder to editorial decisions like NPR's, and even now, relatively few readers will come across the larger context within which my NPR essay was edited. Still, there's no question that the Internet, by democratically distributing a megaphone previously held exclusively by an establishment media which behind the left/right facade marches in ideological lockstep, is permitting unprecedented means of media accountability. Speaking of which: I just finished an advance reading copy of a superb critique of media bloviators: Barrett Brown's Hot, Fat, and Clouded: The Amazing and Amusing Failures of America's Chattering Class, which, by coincidence, includes chapters about some of the stunningly failed pundits whose mention in an essay NPR found "too political." I highly recommend this horrifying, hilarious, devastatingly persuasive book, which as Brown notes in his epilogue could not have been written in the absence of the Internet. And for another example of the increasing power of the Internet to foster media accountability, here's a video challenge from Brown to TNR's Rich Lowry, who could easily have provided the basis for an additional chapter in Brown's book:

Now, I don't mean to be too hard on NPR. First, as an establishment media organ following establishment media rules, NPR is hardly unique, as I hope the many other examples NPR edited out of my essay will demonstrate. Second, NPR has a lot of good and sometimes eclectic coverage, including their current "Vote for the 100 Best Thrillers Ever" campaign, in which, hint, hint, you can find my novels Rain Fall and Fault Line among the nominees, and vote accordingly.

A number of people whose counsel I value urged me not to write this post, lest NPR blackball me from future coverage. Obviously, I decided to take that chance. If I keep these thoughts to myself because I know where my bread is buttered, then by my own standards I'm part of the problem rather than the solution. And besides, at heart, I'm an optimist. I want to believe that eventually, media institutions like NPR will come to understand that public discussion of their pro-establishment ideology and practices will benefit not just their journalism, but their bottom line. After all, in the long run, media organizations perceived as subservient to the powerful, unwilling to debate their practices, and devoted to concealing the shortcomings of other establishment players, will be eclipsed by the blogosphere, which today engages in debate and accountability to which the establishment media seems not yet to aspire.

* * * * *

If you're curious, here's the unedited Nineteen Eighty-Four piece:

A lone man hunted by faceless government spies. A doomed love affair, its urgent moments stolen against a backdrop of terror and war. Surveillance, capture, torture, betrayal. If this doesn't describe a thriller, the thriller doesn't exist.

I'm talking, of course, about Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Orwell's novel makes for such devastating political commentary that in spite of the classic elements I mention above it isn't usually recognized as a thriller. This is a shame, because in addition to its many other virtues, Nineteen Eighty-Four demonstrates the potential power of the form to deliver a dire warning in the guise of entertainment.

I first read the book in high school, and at the time thought of it almost as science fiction: commentary about events set in a remote future that hadn't come to be. There was no Big Brother. Certainly no one was staring back at me while I watched television. And relatively speaking, the country was at peace.

Of course, that was a long time ago. Now we have a civilian population eager to believe the president is "our" Commander-in-Chief, increasingly pervasive government surveillance, and a "long war" against a shifting global enemy so ill-defined it might as well be Eurasia and Eastasia.

Most of all, we have the language—the "newspeak"—Orwell predicted. No, there's no Ministry of Truth, but such an institution would anyway seem superfluous given that The New York Times, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post all now refuse to use the word "torture" to describe waterboarding, beatings, and sleep deprivation of prisoners, adopting instead the government-approved phrase "enhanced interrogation techniques" (as Chris Hayes of The Nation has observed, this is like calling rape "unilateral physical intimacy"). Even NPR, alas, has banned "torture" from its reporting. Escalation in Iraq is a "surge," prisoners are "detainees," assassinations are "targeted killings," and the 60,000 barrel-a-day ongoing undersea oil eruption is nothing but a "spill" or "leak." As bad as it is, imagine how much worse it might be if Orwell hadn't warned against it.

It's interesting to consider that Orwell addressed the major themes of Nineteen Eighty-Four a few years earlier, in his essay Notes on Nationalism. And yet Notes, as excellent as it is, is read much less widely. Why? Because certain themes resonate more powerfully when presented within the structure of a thriller—when brought to life in the conflicts and confusion of characters on the page. For readers, Nineteen Eighty-Four is a warning. For thriller writers, it's something to aspire to.

You must log in to comment.

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Log in | Register

My father, Francis (Frank) Moore, passed away this morning a few months shy if his 93rd birthday. He was a great dad I am blessed to have had him in my life. I...

Apr 20th
2:58 AM
Read More

Time to put the cuffs on Chris Christie -- not for the bridge scandal, but for this: Chris Christie's $300m pension proposal broke state anti-corruption...

Apr 18th
7:31 PM
Read More

George W. Bush Debuts New Paintings Of Dogs, Friends, Ghost Of Iraqi Child That Follows Him... www.theonion.com President Bush has a new hobby -- painting! --...

Apr 17th
7:28 PM
Read More

Big new story from David Sirota and Pando on top Christie adviser and appearance of corruption at New Jersey's pension fund: REVEALED: Gov....

Apr 17th
12:41 PM
Read More

FBI Uncovers Al-Qaeda Plot To Just Sit Back And Enjoy Collapse Of United States www.theonion.com WASHINGTON—The FBI announced today that it has uncovered a...

Apr 15th
3:28 PM
Read More

Revealed: Rahm Emanuel's top donor bought stock in Marriott just before it was awarded huge contract pando.com As schools are closed and pensions cut,...

Apr 9th
2:00 PM
Read More

I'll be at First Time Fest today in New York City at the screening of my first film, Roger & Me. Loews Village 7 at 12:30 pm. Come see it on the big...

Apr 5th
9:48 AM
Read More

Revealed: Rahm Emanuel cuts public pensions, diverts money to benefit campaign donors pando.com If you've read the financial news out of Chicago the last...

Apr 4th
2:19 PM
Read More

Please take a moment today to think of Casey Austin Sheehan, son of Cindy and Patrick, who was murdered by U.S. foreign policy in Sadr City, Baghdad ten years...

Apr 4th
2:00 PM
Read More

ICYMI - I've joined this "thunderclap" to support the Connecticut legislators who voted yes on last year's Act Concerning Gun Violence...

Apr 3rd
7:38 PM
Read More

I've joined this "thunderclap" to support the Connecticut legislators who voted yes on last year's Act Concerning Gun Violence Prevention...

Apr 2nd
8:27 PM
Read More

I am opposed to the death penalty, but to every rule there is usually an exception, and in this case I hope the criminals at General Motors will be arrested...

Apr 1st
3:55 PM
Read More

How Long Some in the US Will Survive Under New Health Law ...by Donna Smith www.michaelmoore.com Those who must access care to live and can afford it are not...

Mar 31st
10:13 PM
Read More

Last night, The Good Wife on the East Coast started 40 minutes late due to the overrun of the NCAA basketball game. If you had your DVR set for the show, you...

Mar 24th
5:41 PM
Read More

Watching films today, looking for the ones I'm going to pick for my film festival this summer. I (and a whole bunch of others!) have this thing we put on...

Mar 23rd
4:48 PM
Read More

When the U.S. Health Care System Keeps Killing, Who Cares Enough to Fight? ...by Donna Smith www.michaelmoore.com We have largely forgotten that people are at...

Mar 21st
5:56 PM
Read More

Tell the White House not to give up on Dr. Vivek Murthy's nomination as Surgeon General despite the ferocious opposition from the NRA: Don't give...

Mar 21st
5:38 PM
Read More

This criminal would never see a jail cell, nor would his cronies. In fact, they'd later be rewarded with re-election: Presidential Address on War with...

Mar 19th
9:40 PM
Read More

The crime of the century -- our invasion & slaughter in Iraq -- started 11 years ago tonite in this 7pm (ET) hour, March 19th, 2003: CNN Coverage of...

Mar 19th
9:08 PM
Read More

Washington’s Back-to-the-Future Military Policies in Africa ...by Nick Turse www.michaelmoore.com Nick Turse is an award-winning journalist, historian,...

Mar 17th
4:59 PM
Read More

"I think democracy is the most revolutionary thing in the world." -- Tony Benn, 1925-2014 Tony Benn in 'Sicko'

Mar 14th
10:07 AM
Read More

RIP Tony Benn, one of the UK's greatest leaders: Tony Benn, veteran Labour politician, dies aged 88 www.theguardian.com Former cabinet minister died at...

Mar 14th
9:53 AM
Read More

Please read this important story from K. Ford K.: Am I the Face of the New American Middle Class? www.huffingtonpost.com I began to feel I had slipped so low...

Mar 13th
2:24 PM
Read More

Yesterday Dianne Feinstein revealed that the CIA has been spying on the Senate Intelligence Committee. This is all about the report the committee has produced...

Mar 12th
6:48 PM
Read More

Health Care for All Colorado has brought Mercy Killers, a show written and performed by Michael Milligan about our murderous for-profit healthcare system, to...

Mar 10th
1:08 PM
Read More

Health Care Dramas that Sting and Why We Have to Watch ...by Donna Smith www.michaelmoore.com The realities Milligan has written into the show cut deep into...

Mar 10th
1:02 PM
Read More

Did you know the Lehrer Newshour on PBS has been produced for 20 years by a company owned by conservative cable billionaire John Malone? Me neither. After...

Mar 7th
8:39 PM
Read More

Mr. Obama, if int’l law is so damn crucial . . . | RootsAction.org act.rootsaction.org The Russian intervention deserves criticism. But let’s be clear. The...

Mar 6th
1:21 PM
Read More

Enron billionaire John Arnold thinks everyone should believe him when he says we've got to cut pensions because he's so incredibly rich: John...

Mar 5th
4:20 PM
Read More

Subscribe to Mike's Blog RSS

Click here to suggest an article

Mike's Blog

See More Blogs

Vew the archives

View older articles