Thoughts on Re-Reading 1984
I wrote about George Orwell’s novel 1984 in the September 2017 “Innovation” issue of American Consequences – in an article where I surveyed various “futurist” authors of the past to see how accurate their predictions about the future were.
I’m afraid I gave Orwell short shrift. “Yeah, yeah,” I said, “a ‘telescreen’ that watches us while we watch it is where you’re reading this now.”
I forgot what a powerful, terrifying, and tragic novel 1984 is. I forgot because I had read the book a couple of times and was under the impression that I understood it.
1984 tells the story of a totalitarianism so total that it’s not satisfied with eliminating Winston Smith, a decent, conscientious individual. It must also eliminate his decency, his conscience, and his individuality first.
When I read 1984 in high school I thought, “This is what the Commies are doing in the Soviet Union.”
When I read 1984 in college I thought, “This is what ‘The Man’ is doing in AmeriKKKa.”
But when I read it as a mature (that is to say, old and worried) adult I was shocked. I realized, “This is what we’re doing to ourselves!”
Our situation is much worse… We have dozens of the things – desktops, laptops, iPads, iPhones, game consoles. And we, of our own free will, refuse to turn them off.
In 1984, Winston Smith can’t turn off the spying, intrusive telescreen. Our situation is much worse. Winston had only one telescreen. We have dozens of the things – desktops, laptops, iPads, iPhones, game consoles. And we, of our own free will, refuse to turn them off.
We don’t live in Winston Smith’s horrible world – yet. But we seem to be doing everything that Orwell foresaw to create that world.
Everything and more. The nation of “Oceania” where Winston lives is a one-party state like Nazi Germany or the U.S.S.R. We’ve topped that. We’ve got two parties in our one-party state.
Both the “progressive” Democrats and the “conservative” Republicans are intent on making 1984 come true.
The “Leftright” Party is the party that really rules America. Members of the Leftright Party practice the “doublethink” that Big Brother demands in 1984. As Orwell explains it, doublethink is “to hold simultaneously two opinions which canceled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them.” (Ask Attorney General Jeff Sessions about the dueling Republican/Democratic House Intelligence Committee memos on the Mueller Russia probe.)
Orwell captures totalitarianism’s interference in every aspect of existence in the first sentence of his book: “…the clocks were striking thirteen.” Whenever “the authorities” start meddling with ancient and customary traditions, something is wrong. So it was when President Jimmy Carter tried to put America on the metric system. And so it is today with an ancient and customary tradition we used to have… that the President of the United States was someone you would welcome into your home.
The “Leftright” Party is the party that really rules America. Members of the Leftright Party practice the “doublethink” that Big Brother demands in 1984.
1984 has a “Two Minutes Hate” where everyone has to stop what they’re doing and despise Emmanuel Goldstein, “Enemy of the People.” We voluntarily stop what we’re doing and spend much more than two minutes despising Donald Trump on MSNBC. Or, if that doesn’t suit us, we despise Nancy Pelosi for hours on Fox News.
Winston Smith “set his features into the expression of quiet optimism which it was advisable to wear when facing the telescreen.” This is nothing compared to the expression of smug and idiotic blow-hard certainty which it is advisable to wear when facing the cameras on MSNBC and Fox.
Winston works in the Ministry of Truth where his job is to rewrite history. He obeys the Party slogan, “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” Some Leftright Party members tear down monuments to Civil War soldiers who died bravely having no idea they were wrong, while other Leftright Party members dress in red baseball caps that declare they’ll make America what it always has been.
In 1984 a language has been invented to replace English, “Newspeak.” The purpose of Newspeak is “to limit the range of thought” by removing all previous mental associations and nuances of meaning from the vocabulary. The people of Oceania will be forced to use this language. Members of the Leftright Party have been much more creative. They’ve invented not one but several languages that limit the range of thought. And they have gotten people to speak those languages without using force. Thus no one is crippled or blind or deaf anymore, much less a moron. They are all “differently-abled.” And no one even tries to discover the truth because the “lamestream media” is full of “fake news.”
Orwell has a Party member say, “Orthodoxy means not thinking.” Members of our Leftright Party aren’t thinking twice as much.
“The heresy of heresies was common sense,” thinks Winston Smith. With double the heresies we have half as much sense.
In 1984, the Party teaches that “Sexual intercourse is to be looked on as a slightly disgusting minor operation, like having an enema.” But now we’ve got both #MeToo and public-school curriculum abstinence education.
Orwell described life in the year 1984 as “…decaying, dingy cities where underfed people shuffled to and fro in leaky shoes, in patched-up nineteenth-century houses that smelt always of cabbage…” A fair description of Portland, Oregon, or hip, artisanal Brooklyn. On the other hand, it’s also not too different from the shanties and trailer parks from which the alt-right pours forth.
“We make the laws of nature,” the Inner Party interrogator and torturer, O’Brien, tells Winston. That sure sounds to me like both sides of the Leftright climate change debate.
Likewise we have doubled our Thought Police forces, with one squadron apprehending visiting lecturers who fail to address college students in Newspeak and another squad circulating among Republicans in the House of Representatives arresting any notion that they can be reelected without Trumpthink.
But what is the goal, what is the objective of the Leftright Party? Why do they oppress and overpower us? (Or, rather, why do they trick us into oppressing and overpowering ourselves?)
Orwell goes straight to the point.
O’Brien tells Winston, “Power is not a means, it is an end… The object of power is power.”
What the Leftright Party wants is power. And what will the Leftright Party do to us with its power?
Again, Orwell is clear. O’Brien asks…
“How does one man assert his power over another, Winston?”
Winston thought. “By making him suffer,” he said.
“Exactly. By making him suffer. Unless he is suffering, how can you know that he is obeying your will and not his own? Power is inflicting pain and humiliation.”