Sixty-five years ago today, in a remote part of Great Britain, George Orwell was finishing his prescient novel, 1984. At the same moment a continent away in Hollywood, an American woman was actually living Orwell’s fictional story. In the fall of 1948, actress Dorothy Comingore of Citizen Kane fame had no clue that the U.S. “thought police” was spying on her, but she could feel a shadow dogging her steps. Dorothy couldn’t find a job to save her life and grew so upset about her difficulties, she wondered aloud: “If I’ve done something wrong, I’d like to know what it is.”
It was as if the moody, random terror that Orwell had so vividly created in his manuscript had drifted across the Atlantic and slipped onto a westbound train for California. Unbeknown to Dorothy, she was being tailed by federal agents, monitored by Congressional investigators, and ranked as dangerous on a top-secret “security” list. These facts seemed more ludicrous than Orwell’s parody of a “security state.” But America already was constructing it.
Today, many U.S. writers, artists and activists undergo similar surreal experiences thanks to the National Security Agency (NSA). While we may think that our government’s scrutiny of our private lives is somehow new and shocking, it isn’t. America has a tradition of spying on its own. I realized this recently when I picked up my yellowed copy of Orwell’s classic after reviewing Dorothy’s private papers. I was struck by the parallels between Orwell’s imagination, his real-life contemporary in America and what’s happening to us today. Covert surveillance, travel restrictions, detentions, loss of work and worse. … This is what happens to Americans who think differently than those in power.
This is what’s happening now.
To understand the beauty of – and potential punishment for – independent thought, let’s go to postwar Britain, a cold and dreary place. To finish his novel about “The Ministry of Truth,” Orwell felt that he had to go to an even darker place. In late 1948, he lived on the Scottish isle of Jura, a remote and barren scratch of Hebridean rock. With little more than a camp bed and a table, the author used his “natural hatred of authority” to write a satirical fantasy about a totalitarian world. In it, eternal warfare is the price for a bleak prosperity. The “Party” remains in power by controlling the people. Giant telescreens scan the actions of everyone, disembodied voices deliver “newspeak” to the masses, and citizens are bombarded with nonsensical slogans such as “Freedom is Slavery” and “Ignorance is Strength.” (Sound familiar?)
In 1984, the Party prohibits any display of individuality, and the worst crime is thinking for oneself. Yet, before long, two lovers, Winston Smith and Julia, begin to do just that. They try to evade the thought police by joining the underground opposition. But the Party finds them, turns one against the other, and tortures Winston until his spirit finally breaks.
When Orwell’s book was published, it was called a fantasy. But it served as a warning to Americans such as Comingore. The fiery actress had become famous for starring in Citizen Kane (1941). She portrayed Susan Kane, the mistress of industrialist Charles Foster Kane, who was based on media tycoon William Randolph Hearst. She had rendered the mogul’s paramour with such skill and vulnerability that she was rumored to be short-listed for an Academy Award. She already had won the hearts of millions of moviegoers, according to Variety readers’ polls, and her gorgeous face graced the pages of Life, Look and dozens of other publications. In the 1940s, Dorothy was a star with a promising career, the admiration of peers, a fine marriage and two children.
The star also had acquired a powerful enemy – the 78-year-old Hearst. The media mogul so hated Dorothy’s portrayal of his mistress, 44-year-old Marion Davies, that he used his chain of newspapers and radio stations to smear the young woman. Hearst’s columnists Hedda Hopper and Walter Winchell publicly accused Dorothy of belonging to the “Party,” in this case the Communist Party, and borrowed Orwellian “newspeak” to malign her. As it was, Dorothy never was a dues-paying “commie.” But even if she had been, it was her constitutional right to be one. She did associate with screenwriters who were communists or had been at one time: Budd Schulberg (On the Waterfront), Dorothy Parker (A Star Is Born) and dear friends Cleo and Dalton Trumbo (Spartacus). These people were called to testify about their beliefs in front of America’s ersatz Ministry of Truth – the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Publicly, union members and artists had to convince the HUAC that their “incorrect” affiliations and thoughts no longer existed – or if they did, they were not dangerous to the state.
Orwell would have loved the irony of it all.
U.S. political leaders at the time distrusted labor organizers and free thinkers even if those thinkers had raised money for the war and its victims, as Dorothy had. The FBI began tailing the actress. According to her files, agents reported her attending parties with Russian guests and giving speeches that, among other things, praised Soviet painters for their realism. But her biggest sins were working alongside black musician Leadbelly and singer Paul Robeson to try and desegregate USO clubs (they did), canvassing voters in Watts for state Assembly candidate Albert Dekker (who won) and trying to overturn the judicial lynching of Mexican youths in the corrupt Sleepy Lagoon Murder Trial (they succeeded).
Dorothy’s triumphs embarrassed the status quo.
Agents began collecting all of Dorothy’s stage names, addresses and names of relatives and traveling companions. Officials tapped her telephone, opened her mail, and went so far as to ransack her tiny apartment. By then the actress was blacklisted and divorced, struggling to raise her children. It’s no wonder she descended into depression, alcoholism and a few nervous breakdowns.
Still, the FBI didn’t let up. Director J. Edgar Hoover had added Dorothy to his secret expansive “Security Index.” He’d devised a system of writing the names of “subversive” citizens on white index cards and ranking them according to how far that person’s beliefs strayed from what Hoover considered acceptable. It was easy to get on the list; it was impossible to get off. Dorothy was ranked a “Category C” danger, which meant that in the event of war she could be hauled off to an interment camp. As absurd as that sounds, the U.S. in mid-1950 was fighting the Korean War and, under Hoover’s plan, Dorothy and some 12,000 other “potentially dangerous” dissidents were about to be arrested and detained in prison camps. Fortunately, President Harry Truman considered the plan unconstitutional and vetoed it.
But instead of learning from our old, cold mistakes, the U.S. is now repeating them. In fact, we’re expanding the old surveillance and intimidation tactics, only we’re using far more sophisticated digital tools. NSA agents can access our personal bank codes, voter registration rolls, property records, tax history, GPS coordinates, Facebook profiles and Twitter threads.
The alleged purpose of this giant stakeout is not to stamp out “communism” but to quash “terrorism.” But these efforts edge perilously close to punishing “thought crimes,” too. The only difference is that, unlike Orwell’s telescreens or Hoover’s binoculars, individuals (not the Party) pay for the new spy tools by purchasing big-screen computers, private smartphones and the latest high-tech gadget.
Of course, we wouldn’t know any of this without the painstaking work of documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, American journalist Glenn Greenwald and their source Edward Snowden. Poitras is no stranger to heavy surveillance. She has been harassed by the United States ever since she began filming My Country, My Country, which documents the abuse of American power in Iraq. In 2006, her government began marking her flight tickets with “SSSS” – Secondary Security Screening Selection. This designation is just as mysterious as Dorothy’s Category C was 65 years ago, but it too means that Poitras faces extra scrutiny. Authorities have seized her private work papers, her computers, cellphones and other equipment, sometimes for weeks at time. They’ve detained her for hours, interrogating her without specifying why. Poitras has written to members of Congress and submitted multiple Freedom of Information Act requests. But she has never received an explanation as to why she is being hounded.
As Poitras told Salon and The New York Times Magazine, she no longer feels safe in her own country. Incredible as it seems, the woman now lives in Berlin.
Greenwald, too, has long chronicled how the United States has abused its powers and eroded our freedoms; naturally, his views have made him unpopular with US institutions. The author has been smeared as a “communist terrorist,” and legislators from both political parties have said he should be prosecuted for revealing our domestic spy program. His past has been dredged up, including his work in defense of the First Amendment rights of neo-Nazis, his work at a gay adult film company (critiques of Greenwld often are drenched in homophobia) and recent financial problems. To stay ahead of spymasters, Greenwald has used encryption software, prepaid phones and track-blockers. But that hasn’t gone far enough. Greenwald’s spouse recently was detained for nine hours by authorities; officials seized documents he was carrying for Greenwalkd then denied him counsel.
At least Greenwald and Poitras have the protection of shield laws and public notoriety. Unfortunately, ordinary citizens do not. Lately, officials have been detaining a string of women for mysterious reasons. Clay Nikiforuk was stopped for carrying a stash of condoms. Sarah Abdurrahman, a producer for On the Media, was detained by U.S. officials on her way home from Canada. They eventually let Sarah go but never explained why they had detained her. And then there’s Michigan resident Mary Scott. She said she received threatening e-mails and was tailed by detectives after she blew the whistle on a health-care company.
The company was fined millions of dollars. Then the government began harassing the whistleblower. Mary and her daughter were placed on a TSA watch list; they’ve been pulled out of airline boarding lines and detained. According to court documents, Mary also has been denied some basic legal remedies. In fact, when a judge in North Carolina heard about the actions that the U.S. government and company had taken against Mary and her family, he was shocked. The official retaliations, he said, “violate everything related to American jurisprudence.”
Yet, this happens increasingly in a country where power has grown more secretive and unaccountable in the past 13 years. Americans cherish their basic rights such as privacy, equality and free expression. Yet the fact that those rights are no longer guaranteed to all is a sign of how far we’ve fallen.
All of which brings us back to Orwell. He didn’t think much of the king and queen. But he loved his country and its working people. He was a socialist but in a pragmatic way, hoping that the conditions of the poor and powerless would be improved. But most importantly, he opposed abstractions of every kind: fascism, Communism and nationalism. He recognized that Americanism was a term that easily could be exploited for totalitarian ends.
How right he was.