03 November 2020

Reality Control #nlpoli

The Memory Hole
Nineteen eighty-four is popular these days.

People think that the ideas in the book like the memory hole are modeled on communist or fascist dictatorships from the early part of the last century.

What those people forget is that George Orwell worked at the BBC during the Second World War.  As Dorian Lynskey noted in his recent history of the novel, Orwell thought that “radio, as it existed in the 1940s, [was] ‘inherently totalitarian.’”  

In Spain during the Civil War, he saw his first newspapers that “did not bear any relation to the facts, not even the relationship which is implied by an ordinary lie.” But it was in his exposure to radio during the Second World War that Orwell heard in all the propaganda on all sides very similar distortions of reality.

“This kind of thing is frightening to me," Orwell wrote in his 1943 essay Looking back on the Spanish war, “because it often gives me the feeling that the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world.”

“After all, the chances are that those lies, or at any rate similar lies, will pass into history… Yet, after all, some kind of history will be written, and after those who actually remember the war are dead, it will be universally accepted. So, for all practical purposes the lie will have become the truth”.

This is only a small step to the slogan of the Party in Nineteen eighty-four:Who controls the past, controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.”

Winston Smith’s job, as anyone who read the book or seen the movie versions knows, is to alter newspapers from the past to reflect the current Party messages.  The old newspapers – indeed any fragments of paper – disappear down a chute popularly known as the memory hole, which led to incinerators somewhere in the building where he worked. They would be replaced by Winston's altered version.

“The past, [Winston] reflected, had not merely been altered, it had been actually destroyed. For how could you establish even the most obvious fact when there existed no record outside your own memory?

A popular line in Newfoundland and Labrador these days came up in the House of Assembly a couple of weeks when the politicians were not talking about the latest news of management cock-ups at Muskrat Falls.  Energy minister Andrew Parsons was sparred with opposition leader Ches Crosbie about who was responsible for the cost over-runs that had driven the cost of the project to be almost three times what the public had been told it would cost in November 2010.

“The project the minister refers to,” Crosbie said, “was sound in concept but poorly executed by Nalcor, and much of the poor execution happened on his watch.

Sound in concept but poorly executed.

That’s a popular line among Muskrateers. Dwight Ball said something along the same lines during the 2019 election debate.  Ball told his familiar lie that he had never supported Muskrat Falls.  Crosbie quoted Ball’s words from the December 2012 Hansard when Ball said he had loved the project when he first heard of it that November now a decade past. So, Ball changed his line to say the project was sound in concept but poorly executed.

That was Dwight’s longstanding rationalization for his past support of the project and his continued refusal once in power to do anything meaningful to stop it.  Muskrat Falls was a fine project.  It was just poorly managed. Or words to that effect.

It’s nonsense, of course.  The project never made sense, as regular readers well know.  The concept from the outset – April 2010, as we now know – was to force local ratepayers to cover the full cost even though they did not need the power and there were cheaper alternatives the government never considered. No one looked at what this might mean for those taxpayers as the project went over-budget. They just ploughed ahead, regardless.

Muskrat Falls was always supposed to double domestic electricity prices. 

Muskrat Falls was always supposed to double public debt.

Muskrat Falls was always supposed to deliver free or really cheap electricity to other people while Newfoundlanders and Labradorians paid the full cost of it, plus profit for the companies involved, and got no lasting benefit of it for themselves.

This isn’t the first bit of Muskrat Falls the project supporters despatched down the memory hole as they re-imagined the past.  They started relatively early on by calculating the start date of the project as December 2012.  Realistically, we should start it from November 2010, when Danny Williams and Kathy Dunderdale announced it. And politically, this totally political of politically projects was unstoppable from about 2005 onwards.

The effect of using December 2012 as the start date is to alter reality.  The architects of the LeBlanc inquiry terms of reference used the start date in December 2012.  This allowed the commission to focus only on the execution of the project and ignore entirely the role played by politicians in conceiving of, developing, and driving the entire project from the beginning. 

The emphasis that LeBlanc played on things NALCOR officials hid from the politicians feeds the myth the project was sound but, as Crosbie said, NALCOR executed it poorly.  The truth is the politicians did not care.

The 2012 myth also allows people to forget that Danny William was the father of this monstrous product of ego and ambition, of politics and pride.  It shifts the blame for the project from the father to the midwife whose only real job was to bring the creature into the world.

The 2012 myth hides the extent of the cost over-runs.  Five billion we were told in 2010.  But by 2012 it was over seven billion.  A year after father Williams and midwife Dunderdale announced their creation, it has already exceeded the total cost everyone was assured the dam, line to the island, *and* the one to Nova Scotia would cost.

The fabrication of a false past is not a conspiracy.  It doesn’t take a dictatorship. Individuals are doing on their own, sometimes unaware of the implication of their alteration.  For many of them, making up a false history is their mind’s way of protecting itself from trauma. They had supported Danny, supported the project, disregarded the critics, went along with the crowd.  They feel pain and maybe guilt but by believing another small lie, they can free themselves of the guilt.

And now by believing that Muskrat Fall was actually good, they pave the way for Gull Island.  If the problem was merely the piss poor management of the project, then Gull Island will be handled by different managers.  We will not make the same mistakes again, some future Premier will announce.  This time we will get it right even though all of the things that made Muskrat mad still make the Island insane.

And the same people who cheered wildly in 2010 will cheer wildly for the glories of Gull, comforted - even if only for a moment - by the controlled reality, the shared delusion they helped create.