Thursday, July 4, 2013

Orwell's "1984": The Kingdom of Big Brother Is Within You

George Orwell’s “1984” is a best seller again, thanks to revelations of government surveillance and the perpetually American belief that there is a movement afoot to subvert the nation. This instinct is one we inherited from the Founding Fathers, and it has largely served us well. It keeps large scale political movements from holding onto power longer than a generation. We get suspicious easily, and in Orwell’s 20th century novel of totalitarianism, we have a brilliant story that caters to our fears, entertains us, and at the same time confirms our darkest suspicions.

Like many of my generation, my first exposure to the novel was in the year “1984,” when western democracy took the book off the shelf, looked around the landscape, and patted itself on the back when it did not see a figure comparable to Big Brother. But Orwell wasn’t necessarily interested in giving us a blueprint for how an all-encompassing dictatorship might happen if (or when) it does – his work’s power lies not in its ability to anticipate those fears to their logical conclusion. Instead, he may have inadvertently stumbled onto the logical end, not of totalitarianism, but unlimited freedom.

In “1984,” Oceania exists because of a great war, which has wiped away the previous governing powers and replaced them with an emergency government. The regime must have a perpetual crisis in order to continue its existence. The nation is ruled by a charismatic leader, and certain kinds of conduct are forbidden in order that the state survives. Citizens are constantly watched for disobedience (not only by a secret police but by each other), and that vigilance later escalates into a search for mere unorthodoxy at every level. Class or individual distinctions are seemingly wiped out in order to blend everyone together, and technology is used to keep the state in a position of power. Scarcity and want are repackaged as privilege and prosperity. History is controlled, even language is controlled, and there is always an enemy who must be defeated. There is enough here to make the easily fearful on either the left or the right in 2013 America suspicious.

Winston Smith’s life has been copied in various works of dystopia that followed – there is a minor character who mimics the rhetoric of the leader. There is a forbidden book that hints at another way. The hero is allowed to entertain the idea that the world might be rescued, or at least, his world. And that world turns at the moment the hero asks the unthinkable question, “Am I happy?”

Thomas Pynchon points out that one of the parlor games of “1984” is looking at the current landscape of this or that society and pointing to what Orwell got right, and what he didn’t anticipate. We have to remember that Orwell didn’t set out to write a definitive critique of totalitarian communism – he was a far-left socialist. What he was interested in was the ability of modern society and ideology to go a long way in wiping out the ability of the individual to define himself. When the novel opens, Winston Smith indulges in perhaps the most subversive thing he can do, outside of his affair with Julia – he begins keeping a diary. Why is this subversive? Because the individual cannot define events, or his own life, in a state-controlled environment. That is the sole privilege of the ruling power. What Oceania attempts to do is wipe out the individual, systemically at first, and if that proves unsuccessful, eventually through torture and brainwashing.

While Orwell got the technological aspect of the “Big Brother” state correct – in its ability to define the past and watch its citizens – there were a few things he didn’t even bother worrying about in his pitch-black future. For example, ethnic tension seems absent. The Party, we are told, has people of virtually every class in its ranks and leadership. But any government that encompasses multiple ethnicities and cultures will always feel tension, especially in the central question of who is making the decisions. What Orwell needs for his dystopia to work is a very docile populace, but he can get that, since he’s its creator.

Also absent is religion – any religion. Instead, devotion is poured out to the state. It is a feature of leftish visions of the future that religion is easily disposed of. The idea behind it is that enlightenment rationalism will eventually triumph and people will understand that the faiths they cling to are as vain as those of our ancient ancestors. One paradox of totalitarian cultures has been that, no matter how hard the state presses, the pressure tends to make faith even more passionate. Christianity survived in Shogunate Japan for centuries despite the best efforts of the executioner, and the church thrived in Communist China even in the crucible of the Cultural Revolution. One can make a case that Christianity surviving the Inquisition in any recognizable form is as much a facet of the faith as the zealotry that inspired the evil in the first place. A completely atheistic Oceania assumes a great deal of the people Winston Smith puts his faith in – the proles. Faiths all over the world do not survive on the hopes of intellectuals or party functionaries, but on the rank and file, the workers; the people who make our societies, free and enslaved, work. The state, any and all states, eventually prove themselves poor repositories of our dreams. The closest the language of “1984” ever gets to religious devotion is during O’Brien’s torture of Winston. Consider:

“The command of the old despotisms was ‘Thou shalt not.’ The command of the totalitarians was ‘Thou shalt.’ Our command is ‘Thou art.’”

Only later does O’Brien inform Winston that “God is power.” By this time, the use of the word “God,” even by the state torturer, seems utterly subversive.

But another faith is absent from “1984,” and that is the defining characteristic of democracy, socialism, communism and even fascism: faith in the inevitable triumph of human civilization. All governments are based on narratives, and the stories they tell must be hopeful in order to keep the population convinced of the state’s viability. Think of any speech by any president – even Jimmy Carter’s notorious “malaise” speech ends with a ridiculous flourish calling on Americans to say something good about the country, and to renew the nation’s spirit. Orwell’s vision of the future is not hopeful and does not end on a happy note – Winston is happy, but he is happy because he has totally surrendered to Big Brother and the idea of Big Brother. He knows that with this triumph, he no longer has to worry about running afoul of the state. Think again of O’Brien’s words:

“The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives. They pretended, perhaps they even believed, that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just round the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal. We are not like that. We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means; it is an end. … the object of power is power.”   

At any moment in a democracy, there are millions of people who feel out of power. They can respond in many ways – contempt for the ruling party, belief in the opposition (or anger at its powerlessness), pessimism that the current rulers are changing the country beyond salvation, or optimism that the nation is too strong to be destroyed. Indeed, there may be the temptation to feel all of these emotions simultaneously. That is why “1984” continually finds enthusiastic readers, no matter who is in power.  

But the work is pliable enough to give comfort and warning across the political spectrum. Take the three slogans of the Big Brother regime – War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength. If you do a quick Google search, you will find all three slogans used ironically in blogs, tweets or postings against each of the last three presidents of the United States.

Modern governments all over the globe convince themselves that a constant state of preparation for war is a deterrent to war, even as they are already engaged in war. The idea of finding freedom in complete obedience is, curiously enough, a religious idea, borrowed from Christianity with the state replacing the divine as the seat of devotion. The third slogan is more pertinent to our time – the idea that not knowing the whole truth, or even a partial truth, means that you rely totally on another to tell you that which you need to know to survive. What should be frightening to modern society is that, in our society which thrives on information technology, such a thing is already happening.

Think about it – how many people, on both left and right, rail against the news media for hiding the truth about this or that issue? But when they look for information to back up their opinions, they invariably turn to the same news media, which presumably can’t hide everything from those clever enough to see through it. Ideologies have now caught on to the idea that by having networks of bloggers, news services, polling services and other information networks, they can perpetually create a narrative that reinforces their beliefs, regardless of the facts. What results is a society where people never recalibrate their ideas based on new information, but instead explain away challenges as being extraordinary. Where no one ever wins an election or an argument, because whoever wins is illegitimate. Circumstances that might otherwise contradict their most closely held beliefs are instead examples of how right they are. In “1984,” the citizens engage routinely in conspiratorial thinking – trying to pick out the real news behind the fake, and interpret the real aims behind this fact’s prominence and that one’s obscurity. “What is the design behind the news? Where are we headed? What don’t they want us to know?”

Orwell’s great fear is of a society of automatons – incapable of thinking or feeling for themselves, eager to believe whatever is fed to them and unconscious of a common past or future. His great mistake was in probably believing the state was necessary to make this happen. There are now more ways than ever before for human beings to define themselves, a power that was unthinkable in the past. In modern society, people can differentiate themselves by fashion, by material wealth, by speech, by their sexual preference (and even their gender), by transcending class, by gaining fame or infamy, and by isolating themselves from it all. There is belonging available to virtually every role through communication. Every avenue is available, with only a little effort and luck. This is what almost total freedom looks like, on a scale even Orwell would have found unlikely.

But how many of your friends’ Facebook statuses look exactly the same? How many times do they share with you the same images, videos, or faulty facts? How often do we dismiss a certain piece of news because it does not fit into our neat ideological categories? How many tweets do you read that seem like an untold number of other tweets? How often do the same stale jokes clog up your phones from people who have all convinced themselves they are original, funny, and utterly unique? The danger of modern society may be not of automatons created by the state, but created by the culture, who all look utterly alike while they are all the time convinced they are different. Add to that an atmosphere of cynicism and irony, where even the worst news about society gives us new fodder for snarky comments, an atmosphere where history is dismissed as irrelevant, the product of a conspiracy. Where people stay in barely defined roles or avenues handed to them by their politics or culture because they do not believe there is any way to something else. Suddenly you don’t need Big Brother watching you – “1984” is within you. 

I also wrote about the NSA surveillance scandal in relation to Francis Ford Coppola's film "The Conversation" here. 

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
The Alabama Baptist wrote about the book here.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here. 
Read a piece I did for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
Read another interview with the fleegan book blog here. 


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