It has been a new experience for Canadians, worrying about becoming characters in a book. Nineteen Eighty-Four is the name of a novel in which totalitarianism occurs on a grand, enthusiastic and imaginative scale. It is also the name of this year. You can’t sneak a coincidence like that past the Canadian media.
Given their choice, Canadians would prefer not to be in this particular book. They would like it better if the year were called something else—such as Winnie-The-Pooh or Debrett ’s Illustrated Guide to the Canadian Establishment. But they don’t name years that way, and we are stuck with 1984. Some people have been seeing Nineteen Eighty-Fourish stuff everywhere. They worry about the TV cameras that scan department stores and bus terminals for signs of unorthodox activity. They worry about television, particularly the two-way type featured in some computer systems.
But face it: Nineteen Eighty-Four, the book, isn’t here, even if 1984, the year, is. All Big Brother has done, despite the wealth of technology at his, or her, disposal, is put us on a lot of mailing lists. We are still free people. We can sail paper airplanes around the living room without anyone being the wiser. And we can throw out the government every four years or so.
Why has Nineteen Eighty-Four failed to arrive on schedule? One answer may be a lack of will on the part of our rulers. Or it may be because they’re awfully busy. It’s hard for a government to find the time to rewrite history when it has a million press releases to crank out. It’s hard for a government to run a good, solid Ministry of Truth when it has to keep shuffling the cabinet with an eye to regional representation.
The government isn’t up to it, in other words. Nor, it could be argued, are other of the nation’s institutions, which often act in a quirky way. The city of Montreal began attaching something called the Denver Boot last year to the automobiles of people who had accumulated too many parking tickets. The Denver Boot is a big yellow thing that clamps onto a wheel, thus rendering the automobile less useful than it would otherwise be. A court solemnly declared that the Denver Boot was unconstitutional, a violation of due process. When courts declare yellow hunks of metal unconsti-
tutional, Nineteen Eighty-Four is still a few years down the road.
Another thing that happened to the Denver Boot is that people stole some of them. One would not condone stealing, but it is a sign of an independent streak. Nineteen Eighty-Four works only in a nation of sleepwalkers. There have been suggestions we are approaching that.
A New York Times article, based to some extent on the false allegation that pedestrians in Ottawa do not cross against the light, made much of our eagerness to follow instructions: “Order is accepted as a higher virtue than freedom, security as a greater boon than liberty,” the Times said of us.
The year just past would not support that. There have been many wonderful instances of looniness on the part of Canadians, and looniness is a condition with which Nineteen Eighty-Four cannot coexist.
Item: A group of young people set up tents on Parliament Hill and declared themselves a peace camp. Late in a cold April their tents were ordered off the lawns. The protest of the peace campers cited article 2(b) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, with regard to freedom of expression. “Not only are our tents needed to stave off the inclement weather,” a spokesman said, “they are also a means of expression.”
Item: Laughter aimed at the post office was so widespread that Canada Post felt compelled to write a letter to The Globe and Mail, “We expect occasional quips,” Canada Post said, “but excessive ‘post office bashing’ undermines the real progress we have made.”
Item: Winnipeg had the gas war to end all gas wars. “We must have gone through 100,000 L and lost $10,000,” a gas station official said. “It was worth it,” he added. “You can’t let a competitor dictate your pricing policy.”
Item: Playgirl, a U.S. magazine, held auditions in Toronto for a special Canadian edition. Hundreds turned up, among them a Canadian who said, “If I could become a centrefold or even one of the guys that’ll be chosen, I could work
anywhere I want in the States.” Also present, with their shirts off, were reporters from at least three newspapers, masquerading as beefcake to Get That Story. This demonstrates another reason why Nineteen Eighty-Four, the book, is a long way off: vigorous and free press, ready to go to any length in the pursuit of truth.
The press is only one of the many Canadian institutions to demonstrate the contempt for rationality that will enable us all to survive until 1985. The Manitoba bureaucracy dreamed up totally incomprehensible wording for municipal referendums on French-language rights and arranged things in such a way that those in favor of increased rights would have to vote “no.”
The Ontario bureaucracy produced a letter to the clerk of the village of Wardsville (population 450), inquiring as to the state of the Arts (the letter capitalized it) in the village, how they were regarded, how they were funded. The clerk replied, “We are pleased to advise that we have four: Art Harold, Art Morgan, Art Marks, Art Sweet.” The clerk continued: “They are all extremely well regarded in the community. They are mostly funded by old age security pension and Canada pension....”
The clerk of the Corporation of the Village of Wardsville will not fit well into Nineteen Eighty-Four. Nor will many of our other citizens, institutions and politicians. Even the strength of the technology may be overrated.
Item: Pay TV, felt by many to be a harbinger of Nineteen Eighty-Four, failed to sell like hot cakes in 1983. One major carrier, C-Channel, disappeared. “Unfortunately, our marketing plans miscarried,” explained an official. “We’re attempting to sell our service to those very homes who tend not to watch TV and are proud of it.”
Item: What may be the last word on electronic eavesdropping came from a National Archives official in Washington, commenting on the thousands of hours of previously unreleased secret Nixon White House tapes: “Two thousand of those hours are extraneous sounds—vacuum cleaners, television sets, that kind of thing—because it was a sound-activated system.”
Big Brother, if he, or she, exists, has his work cut out for him, or her. As for the rest of us, only 51 weeks until 1985.
Charles Gordon is a columnist for the Ottawa Citizen.
Tt is hard for a government to find time to rewrite history when it has a million press releases to crank out ’
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