“War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength.”
I must embarrassingly admit that I don’t know if this was the first time I’ve read 1984 cover to cover or not. I’ve certainly tried to read it a couple of times in the last few years and never made it through to the end for one reason or another. And really there’s no excuse because it’s not that long of a novel and the language is simple yet poetic. Most everyone is probably familiar with the plot: Winston Smith mentally and physically sins against a future government, which regulates top down through surveillance, manipulation, and torture. Orwell (aka Eric Blair 1903-1950) originally titled the book The Last Man in Europe, in reference to the fact that Smith appears to be the only human who still hides his real self…in a tiny section of his brain no less. And if he really is the last, then humanity is royally fucked because… Well, I can’t really tell you that, can I?
I’ve come to agree with Neil Postman’s argument that the world we live in is much closer to (or perhaps actually is) the world of Huxley’s Brave New World and not 1984, though the fear of Big Brother runs rampant through pop culture, conspiracy theories, and the political fears of the far right and left. While reading the book this time, I couldn’t help but think the novel is more of a reflection of European fears and despotic fantasies in the 1940s than America in the 21st century. I don’t think most Americans would recognize or understand Orwell’s portrayal of European socialism (as both he wishes and fears), proletarian culture, or Goldstein’s concepts of class consciousness and division of power as anything other than being part of something they know as “fascism.” But that’s not to say that parts of American culture aren’t seen in the novel.
1. Newspeak–the idea that language is more malleable by the elite when vocabulary is shrunk and ambiguities and shades of truth are eliminated through word choice and word corruption. This makes me think of two things in American culture. The first is the current executive administration, particularly its figurehead–limited vocabulary, black and white definitions, shrewd word choice. His inelegance creates meaning which is shielded from criticism by pseudo-pragmatism, jingoism, and fantastic constructions of “strength.” The second thing is advertising. If anything is a direct reflection of Newspeak in our culture, it’s this. Let’s all call it Adspeak for god’s sake.
2. Internal class warfare. Whether Americans want to admit it or not, the US is a class-based society. Perhaps there aren’t the same minute delineations as there are in a society like Britain’s, but Goldstein’s rather simplistic but bell-ringing truths about the three main strata of society and the realities of internal conflict are present. One out of every three US Senators is a millionaire. That’s compared to the less than 1% who are in the general population. And, of course, just by being in Congress, every member receives a six-figure salary from that job alone. But the US isn’t really ruled by the rich, is it? Certainly middle-class values don’t have an effect on urban decay, civil design, and social services, right?
3. Surveillance. I won’t even get into the federal standards on the issue. Instead, I’ll just mention that it’s my belief that the up-and-coming generations are becoming more and more comfortable in handing their privacy over. Look at any site for teen blogs. They’ve become confessionals–including biographical data, personal writings once reserved for “Dear Diary,” photos, and intimate video–that can be accessed by everyone from classmates to strangers halfway around the world. I don’t mean to be an alarmist, but I do worry about where this is headed, particularly if polling data does accurately reflect the belief in the general population that safety is more important than liberties and rights.
Orwell’s novel is fascinating, even if an incredible downer at times. Proof of his writing’s power is in all the words we’ve incorporated into everyday speech from it: Big Brother, Orwellian, Thought Police, doublethink, and so on. Now it’s certainly speculative fiction, but is it science fiction? Rocketships and space aliens? No. Future technology like all-seeing televisions, speculation on humanity’s future and the future of warfare? Yes. Does it really matter considering it’s a thought-provoking, well-written novel? Not really.