Does the current political turmoil warrant labels such as ‘totalitarian’ or ‘fascist’? I don’t think so. I was born in a totalitarian country. Even though Stalinism was over, Polish reality at the time was grim. The all-powerful censorship office which did the bidding of the communist party (with a direct line from Moscow) held the only channel of state television and a few newspapers with an iron grip. You didn’t know what the world outside was like and it was always a good idea to be cautious who you spoke to. Imprisonment for political views was not rare.
Travelling, access to many books, free media, some knowledge were either forbidden or strictly rationed. Of course, over the years, the situation gradually was improving, but up until late 1980s, that was the reality. Well, sort of, because the martial law (introduced in 1981) which curtailed what few right we had. This was the time when the only programme on television for quite some time was TV presenters (dressed in military uniforms) were reading the decree of martial law, while the curfew meant that soldiers patrolling streets at night could actually shoot you. I still remember a column of tanks going past the block of flats I lived in with my parents. This was an interesting and dangerous time for a politically-minded teenager.
I am not going to tell you about my more interesting ‘adventures’ in communism, but let me tell you about one in primary school. I was about 12, when my parents were summoned to school and warned that if I chose to express my views on history and politics, primary school would be the only school I would ever graduate from. I was threatened with the so-called wolf ticket.
I have no idea how likely it was to happen, yet, I vividly remember my mother shaking when she came from school, begging me to shut up. This was the first time I became painfully aware that the consequences for speaking my mind could impact my entire future life. And believe me, when you’re literally kicked by riot police in a police lorry, you don’t think about their boots, but about how likely it is that you could be ‘disappeared’. It really does focus the mind.
And my stories are absolutely nothing when compared with people who were killed or imprisoned for their political beliefs in communist Poland. And all that pales in the face of what was happening in the Soviet Union. I read a samizdat edition of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago in the early 1980s and it scared me. In comparison, Poland was the land of the free.
Anyway, I didn’t have to read Orwell’s dystopia to understand what it actually meant to live in a totalitarian state (fortunately Orwell had overdone the system by a mile). And so, when last night I saw George Orwell’s book transformed into ‘Twenty Seventeen”, I have a problem with all this. I have a problem with continual references to totalitarianism. It’s either already here or it’s only just beginning, still, the USA is on the sure road to a totalitarian state, much like the UK lead by Theresa May. Every other decision of the current US government is now described by someone as indicative of a totalitarian system. And I object to it.
I disagree with just about everything Mr Trump says or does, I also disagree with Mrs. May. I find what’s happening in American and British politics as horrible, abhorrent and scary. I also think our democracy, a system so many died for, is threatened, while human rights are being violated as I write this post. But at the moment it all has really nothing to do with totalitarianism.
How do I know? Well, because we can still bloody talk about it! Also in a totalitarian state the dismissed US general attorney would not have been merely sacked with the press falling over themselves as they report it.
Can it all lead to totalitarianism? To be honest, I don’t think so. I somehow doubt that we shall see a concerted state effort to close media outlets which are not supportive of governmental policies. I also don’t think that any Western government can seriously consider closing the internet. That does not mean that there are no threats. My native Poland sees some very scary authoritarian changes in its legal system, changes which are way beyond anything that is happening in the US or the UK at the moment. Scary? Extremely. Totalitarian? No.
Language matters. Let’s keep things in proportion, especially in language. The word ‘totalitarian’ should not be used in reference to decisions with which we simply disagree strongly, even those coming out of intolerance, racism, or indeed, stupidity. Totalitarian doesn’t also mean that things are morally wrong and nasty.
Totalitarian is when you don’t know whether the world outside still exists! When you are afraid your friend, or child might denounce you to the authorities (have a look at the story of Pavlik Morozov). We’re not there yet and quite a way off.
So, let’s not run out of language to describe things. And let’s keep some separate language to describe the hundreds of millions that died and still die from totalitarian oppression.