The second most terrifying thing about George Orwell’s 1984 is the supposition that it is possible to destroy humanity without destroying humankind. The first is how many aspects of our democratic nation resemble his dystopian nightmare.
George Orwell wrote 1984 in 1948 as a political satire of a totalitarian state and a denunciation of Stalinism. Orwell himself was a socialist, who fought for the republicans in the Spanish Civil War and was wounded by a sniper bullet to the throat. As the West became aware of the horrors of Stalin, Orwell became disillusioned.
1984 was Orwell’s resulting futuristic-cautionary tale of Winston Smith in a world of government domination defined by anxiety, hatred, and cruelty. The Party, whose head is reverently called Big Brother, presides over existence through omnipresent surveillance and mind control. Their subjugated citizens are programmed not only to accept if Big Brother says that 2 + 2 = 5, but also to believe it. Winston’s adventures begin as he slowly and fearfully steps out of the established traces, sensing the hypocrisy that surrounds and penetrates him, to search for truth. What he finds is pain.
Of course, the United States is not autocratic; but many of the disturbing elements of 1984 actually exist in American society. In some cases, what is happening in the U.S. is more draconian and invasive than anything Orwell conceived.
War is Peace
One of the Party pillars in 1984 is endless war on a global scale. The war, however, is a fabrication accepted and treated as fact. For, unreal as it is, it is not meaningless. World powers become enemies and allies interchangeably simply to keep the masses in perpetual fear, perpetual industry, and perpetual order. War provides outlet for unwanted emotions such as hate, patriotism, and discontent, keeping the structure of society intact and productive without raising the standard of living.
Where is the enemy—or the end—in our “war on terror?” The faceless foe and limitless objectives are productive of a widespread atmosphere of paranoia and restricted civilian liberties. In the wake of the sequestration military-spending cuts, it is also manifest that, to many, war means little more than a job.
Freedom is Slavery
The perpetual warfare in 1984 sacrifices individual freedom for collective freedom. By submitting entirely to the Party, people surrender their identity and the impulses that arise from having one, passively receiving everything. The principles of unfreedom and inequality are consciously perpetuated to stifle revolution and uprising, uniting all in a trance under the watchful eye of Big Brother.
True freedom is the unimpeded capacity to realize the human good. Freedom in America is generally defined as mere license, which enslaves when human inclinations stray from the good. This American fallacy defines liberty as getting what is wanted, and moreover, that the government is there to give it. Subservience through mindless entitlement for government handouts and bailouts is not freedom, but slavery.
Ignorance is Strength
Any transgression against the Party is a capital crime. The common habit, therefore, is invincible ignorance: the appearance of orthodoxy without knowing what orthodoxy entails. The Party’s world-view is impressed most successfully on people incapable of understanding it.
Has anyone read the Affordable Care Act? The plan appears to be to swallow it in blind lip-service to the ideologies of big government. This mentality is rendered common by a declining—if not fallen—education system. (Who can afford college anyway these days?) Rather than address the plague of ignorance, America seems more concerned with protecting the ignorant from profiling and unequal opportunity.
Practically every public and private place in Orwell’s fictional world is under surveillance through “telescreens,” that also broadcast announcements, news, and propaganda. They are the sleepless eyes monitoring every move, every word, every facial expression, and every involuntary reaction of every person in the effort to detect thoughtcrime. “Big Brother is watching you.”
Social media keeps close record of our “likes” and activities. Our telephone calls and browsing histories are accessible to apparently any NSA analyst, according to Mr. Snowden. Our social security numbers and zip codes are increasingly part of everyday transactions. Private lives are spied upon. Drones fly overhead. Cameras record invisibly. Data is collected. We, too, are being watched.
Party members in 1984 practice a mental contortion that assumes two contradictory premises simultaneously for the sake of exercising control over reality. This practice is called “doublethink,” and leaves no impression that reality has been violated. This mind control, or memory control, allows the Party to shape their world: “Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.”
Politicians often use forms of doublethink when they carefully and consciously lie. National Intelligence Director James Clapper, for instance, was asked at a Senate hearing last March whether the NSA collected information on millions of Americans. “No,” Clapper answered. “Not wittingly.” Following the NSA leak, Clapper insisted he did not lie, but responded in the “least untruthful manner.” We are too accustomed to mutable “truth”—the gospel according to Wikipedia. From conflicting Benghazi reports to misleading Trayvon photographs, the media regularly and unabashedly fabricates, falsifies, and manipulates according to the agenda du jour.
A prominent feature of progress in 1984 is the language “newspeak,” a stripped-down, impotent distortion of English. Orwell draws a connection between the success of the tyrannical government and the deterioration of language, as newspeak renders certain ideas literally unthinkable through reduction of vocabulary and grammar. Language control results in thought control.
We have our own variations of “newspeak” that limits what we think by limiting what we say. “Politically correct” language is speech that hedges thought. Technological autocorrect and autocomplete functions often dictate our phraseology. Emails and tweets promote stilted communication. And let us not forget text talk, which AFAICT, is not helping anything. WYSIWYG. As a language deteriorates, the grand and noble ideas it is capable of expressing are in danger of deteriorating also.
Although we are not citizens of Orwell’s world, there is a complacency in our civilization that is akin to Orwellian capitulation. The fears and confusions of a rapidly changing culture and its permeating devices are disorienting and discouraging. Affairs may not be as grisly as they were for Winston Smith, but we may not be far off. After all, can facecrime really be much different than hate-crime? Is it better for sex to be reduced to its practical purpose or its pleasure? Whether memory holes or paper shredders, a society resembling Orwell’s description may have arrived.
There is only so much we can do. When all are monitored, all are suspect.
“We are the dead. Our only true life is in the future. We shall take part in it as handfuls of dust and splinters of bone. But how far away that future may be, there is no knowing. It might be a thousand years. At present nothing is possible except to extend the area of sanity little by little.”