Civil Liberties

We Shouldn't Abuse Orwell's Writing When Discussing the NSA Scandal, Especially on His Birthday


Credit: Branch of the National Union of Journalists (BNUJ)

On this day in 1903 Eric Blair, who would come to be better known by his pen-name George Orwell, was born in India.

Orwell is perhaps best known for his objections to totalitarianism, which were not only displayed in his novels and essays but also in his decision to fight with the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War.

It was Orwell who coined the term "Big Brother" in his classic dystopian novel 1984. Looking through some of Orwell's better-known quotes there are a couple that now seem especially timely.

  • From the essay "Politics and the English Language": "Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind."
  • From the essay "The Freedom of the Press": "If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear."

Since the Snowden's revelations about NSA surveillance sales of 1984 have, perhaps unsurprisingly, skyrocketed. While some of Orwell's writings may seem especially timely now we should be wary of casually drawing too many comparisons between the some of Orwell's fiction and the current state of affairsMichael Moynihan, cultural news editor at The Daily Beast and contributing editor to Reason, has rightly pointed out that it would be wrong to think that the contemporary U.S. is anything like the dystopia described in 1984, saying that, "The rule here is simple: If you are invoking 1984 in a country in which 1984 is available for purchase and can be freely deployed as a rhetorical device, you likely don't understand the point of 1984."

While it might be easy to flippantly deploy Orwell's writing or to mistakenly say that we we are somehow living in the world described in 1984 it is remarkable that more than 50 years after Orwell's death politicians and commentators continue to use the word "Orwellian" as a derogatory term.