Tuesday, February 28, 2017
The four lives of Nineteen Eight-Four
George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four is going through its 4th life right now - first when it was published (1949), then during the heart of the Cold War in the 1960s when every teenager in America read it, then in 1984 when people read it again to see if Orwell's prescience was accurate (it wasn't) and now as we look at the potential rise of a totalitarian state in the U.S. Nineteen Eight-Four holds up well as a narrative - Orwell's style is smart, funny, clear, the narrative uncluttered, and most of all his vision of a dystopian future as startling and real today as when I first read the novel many decades ago (the sex scenes, so titillating to young male readers in the 1960s, seem quaint today, however). It's even more obvious reading the novel today that he was thinking about the possible expansion of a Stalinist autocracies into a a world-dominating force - his vision was a planet divided into three massive nations, always at war w/ one another. The satiric elements of the novel are powerful today if a little too crude - to world divided into party members (the narrator, Winston Smith, is a skeptical party member) and the "proles"; as in his earlier and more didactic work, Animal Farm, part of the message concerns the hypocrisy and exploitation of the party in relation to the working class - exalted in theory but oppressed and exploited in practice. Nineteen Eighty-Four is much broader in scope than AF, as if posits a complete totalitarian society in which all citizens are constantly monitored and controlled the "thought police." Fortunately, societies such as Orwell envisioned have never risen to global dominance, yet, but we have seen several Orwellian states rise and fall in the over the past half-century: China under Mao, Cambodia, North Korea, Uganda, and in some ways - though more militant and less intellectual - ISIS, to name some examples, each at least so far evolved or isolate. But that brings us to the more interesting aspect: the totalitarian democracy. How can we not feel a chill and a shudder of recognition when we read about "newspeak," in which lies are truth, in which everything can mean its opposite, in which an entire organ of government, the Ministry of Truth, is engaged in revising all past records and documents, pushing the truth down to oblivion through "memory holes." Not only do we see the dawn of the kind of totalitarian, autocratic behavior in the early days of the Trump administration - it's also far more possible to pervert the truth and to spy on the citizenry today that Orwell could possibly have envisioned. "Freedom is slavery" is one of Big Brother's slogans; words like that could be on the banners flying from RNC HQ, someday soon.