This week marks the 60th anniversary of perhaps the most famous book of the 20th Century: George Orwell's 1984. It is a book that changed our language, giving us such words and phrases as "thought police," "newspeak," "doublethink," and "Big Brother"—not to mention "Orwellian." But what is the relevancy of Orwell's disturbing novel today? Is it a warning about future horrors that may come if we fail to guard our freedom? Does it talk about things that are already present in our lives?
Orwell, the British journalist and writer, penned his book in 1948 as a commentary on Soviet totalitarianism, a very present danger at the time. His dystopia was in many ways an even darker version of Stalin's Soviet Union, with a godlike leader, a ruling party that enforces the state's ideology, and an omnipresent secret police. Yet Orwell was a socialist, a man of the left whose polemic was directed in large part at the pro-Soviet delusions of his fellow leftists. Since then, both left and right have tried to appropriate Orwell's vision and claim it as their own.
The most recent such appropriation comes from the right. The Competitive Enterprise Institute, which opposes increased regulation, used the anniversary to put out a press release arguing that "the crusade for global governance led by environmental activist groups in the name of combating global warming" represents a 1984-style threat to personal freedom today. The CEI has released a video clip based on the famous 1984-themed Apple Computer ad in which Al Gore appears as Big Brother lecturing a zombie-like captive audience in gray uniforms on the perils of global warming.
Whatever one may think of climate change, such imagery and rhetoric runs the risk of trivializing the evil of true totalitarianism—and discrediting one's own argument, except in the eyes of those who need no convincing. Al Gore is not planning to establish secret dungeons where people will be horribly tortured until they see the error of their ways, any more than George W. Bush—a frequent target of accusations of Orwellian malfeasance—was planning to brainwash the unpatriotic into submission.
Orwell's concern was not with a democratic government's excessive regulatory powers, or excessive national security powers (in the Cold War years, he himself shared a list of communist sympathizers and possible Soviet spies with an intelligence agency in the British Foreign Office). It certainly wasn't with the ability of corporations to track customers' buying habits, which some privacy advocates have likened to Big Brother's watchful eye.
The oppressive machine in 1984 is a tyrannical state that maintains total control over the lives and even thoughts of its subjects and brutally crushes all dissent. It is unchecked power, "a boot stamping on a human face—forever." The closest any political force comes to this nightmare vision today, besides such communist relics as North Korea, is Taliban-style Islamist radicalism.
Yet 1984 does have lessons beyond the totalitarian experience. Take the book's definition of "doublethink," the ideal mental state of the citizen of Orwell's dystopia: it is "the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them," the ability "to tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies."
It is not just governments—democratic or not—that engage in a less extreme version of such mental gymnastics. It's activists of all stripes; talk show hosts and pundits across the political spectrum; and, finally, ordinary people. The same is true of "newspeak," terminology invented to shade the real meaning of certain beliefs or acts and make them more appealing. (Even such popular terms as "pro-choice" for "pro-abortion rights" and "pro-life" for "anti-abortion" have overtones of newspeak.)
Another pervasive feature of the Orwellian state was the practice of constantly whipping up hatred toward the ideological enemy du jour. Looking at much of our political discourse today, from right-wing talk radio to left-wing blogs, it's hard not to think of such rituals as "Two-Minute Hate" and "Hate Week." On too many political websites, every week is Hate Week—whether the object of hate is liberals, Muslims, neocons, or Christian bigots. Partisan propagandists and professional hate-mongers bear a large share of the blame, but so do "regular" people who need little encouragement to demonize political opponents.
The inhuman system that inspired Orwell's masterpiece has crumbled. But doublethink, newspeak, thought-policing and virtuous hatred are eternal temptations of the human soul, even in the freest of societies. We have met Big Brother, and he is us.