In Front of Your Nose


In 1946 George Orwell wrote a piece called In Front of Your Nose in which he famously said that “[t]o see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.”  This is so, Orwell thought, because people have a habit of  “ignoring facts which are obvious and unalterable, and which will have to be faced sooner or later.”  As Orwell explained:

[W]e are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue, and then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right.  Intellectually, it is possible to carry on this process for an indefinite time: the only check on it is that sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield.

We all know what it looks like when false beliefs bump up against solid reality on a battlefield.  Paris is but one example of that.  Others that come to mind are Ferguson and Hong Kong.  In Paris the false belief was that terrorist watch lists and “intelligence” were effective tools in keeping a check on disenchanted, frustrated and angry youths.  In Ferguson, it was that blacks would be content living  in poverty and ignominy for the rest of their lives, under a power structure dominated mostly by non-blacks.  And in Hong Kong, it was that everyone who wasn’t rich wouldn’t also like the chance to become rich or at least level the playing field for those who weren’t rich.

But little seems to change even when the battle between myth and fact makes it way from the sterile confines of the internet and the legislature on to the streets.  If anything, it is the status quo that has  prevailed in most places.  In Paris, as in the United States, post-September 11th, the talk, no doubt, is of bulking up the security state to further marginalize those who “hate the values of the freedom-loving West.  In Ferguson, blacks have gone back to living their miserable lives  hoping that they won’t end up like Michael Brown even though that may be a fate better than what is surely in store for most of them, being  poor and black in the United States.  And in Hong Kong the Chinese Communist party had its way with the protestors, giving not one inch to their demands and barely acknowledging their months-long existence.

It may be that we have not yet reached the battlefield to which Orwell referred in his essay.  That the events in Paris, Ferguson and Hong Kong are simply a preview of what is to come: more hardening up of positions, more violence, and more deaths.  But it may also be that none of what Orwell feared will ever come to pass.  Not because we will have finally come face to face with the brutal facts but because the governing class will have succeeded in eliminating all unpleasant facts; in fact, we are already halfway there given the current size of the surveillance apparatus.  That would be the scariest proposition of all.

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