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Orwell was right--and wrong: George Orwell's 1984 accurately portrays many aspects of totalitarianism, but this tale of "Big Brother" is not without its flaws.

Author George Orwell's old neighborhood is looking, well, positively Orwellian these days. According to a recent article in London's Daily Mail, 32 closed-circuit TV (CCTV) cameras keep the commons under constant surveillance within 200 yards of Orwell's old apartment overlooking Canonbury Square in North London. Two such cameras, perched on traffic lights, monitor the gardens in the square, while two more watch the area behind the apartment. Throughout London, from streetlights, lampposts, building walls, and other unobtrusive spots, in tube stations, bus stops, squares, and parks, CCTV cameras continuously monitor the comings and goings of London's millions of residents and visitors.

Elsewhere in England, some cameras are even being equipped with loudspeakers, enabling government personnel monitoring the cameras to bark warnings at people observed littering or committing other misdemeanors. Britain is said to have roughly 4.2 million CCTV cameras--one for every 14 people--and accounts for 20 percent of the world total.

American citizens are no strangers to surveillance either. Surveillance cameras record our every move in many public places, especially areas where security is deemed paramount, such as airports. Our e-mails and phone calls are subject to warrantless monitoring. And police checkpoints, where vehicles are stopped (and sometimes searched) and drivers interrogated, are becoming commonplace. Is it realistic to expect that a state with the power and inclination to monitor its citizens so pervasively would not, ultimately, abuse this power?

To be sure, we're still a far cry from Orwell's fictional totalitarian state of Oceania, featured in the famous novel 1984, where two-way "telescreens" and the omnipresent Thought Police monitor every facial expression, and where the suffocating orthodoxy of "The Party" has all but snuffed out individuality. But the general contours of the modern state, with its almost unlimited powers of surveillance and its penchant for constant propaganda, were foreseen more accurately by George Orwell than by almost anyone else.

The World of 1984

1984 opens with the decision of the protagonist, a mid-level Party functionary named Winston Smith, to commit "thoughtcrime." Winston begins keeping a journal chronicling his nightmarish life in a future London, an impoverished, bombed-out husk of the former British capital. England itself has become Airstrip One, a province of Oceania, a superstate that apparently includes the entire New World. Vying with Oceania for global dominion are Eurasia and East-asia, with which Oceania is alternatively at war, switching allegiances every few years, apparently at the whim of Party leadership.

The Party itself, loosely patterned after the Soviet Bolsheviks, is emblemized by Big Brother, the semi-mythical, almost messianic party figurehead. The four ministries of Truth, Peace, Plenty, and Love are responsible, respectively, for propaganda, war, economic affairs, and ensuring the absolute obedience of the populace, especially Party members. The Party's three slogans embody its deliberately contradictory world view: War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength.

Orwell's tale follows Winston Smith as he spirals more and more deeply into thoughtcrime, knowing throughout that the Thought Police will catch him eventually. He develops a forbidden love interest in Julia, a young co-worker who detests the Party as much as he does. Winston even makes contact with what he believes is a subversive underground movement dedicated to the Party's overthrow.

Eventually both Winston and Julia are arrested and taken to the Ministry of Love, where Winston finally comes face to face with the Party's monstrous and irresistible final aim: to stamp out utterly the last vestiges of human individuality and independence of thought, all in the name of the unalloyed and unapologetic pursuit of absolute power.

Much of the timeless appeal of 1984 is in the details, such as Orwell's trademark fluid prose and a cast of tragic characters whose quirks and frailties seem (by design) to be out of place in the mechanized nightmare world of Oceania. The setting is as vividly imagined as any alternative universe from the realm of science fiction or epic fantasy: futuristic machines like telescreens and memory holes, the former to record and broadcast information, the latter to destroy it; horrific weaponry like rocket bombs and floating fortresses; a sprawling bureaucracy for the manufacture of insipid popular culture, from computers that compose vapid and formulaic popular songs to committees that produce pornography to help placate the voiceless masses of "proles" or disenfranchised working classes; and even a made-up language, Newspeak, a radically simplified, denatured version of English devoid of nuance and spontaneity, and intended to keep the limits of human thought firmly within Party control.

Against such a leviathan, Winston Smith (and, it is implied, everyone else as well) is ultimately powerless. Nor did Orwell himself see any bright prospects for the human race. Man, he believed, was unequal to the demands of his destiny, and would end up converting the fruits of high civilization (modern technology in particular) into the instruments of his own enslavement. Orwell, though an opponent of totalitarianism, was a dedicated socialist. He spent years in the trenches of the Spanish Civil War as well as in British India, observing man's inhumanity to man and nurturing the despairing pessimism that pervades his two best known works, 1984 and the darkly humorous fable Animal Farm.

Nowadays, much of the technology Orwell foresaw is not only reality but being deployed as he feared it would be. Sophisticated modern surveillance technologies make a mockery of the once-revered "right of privacy," and ever-more-expansive government powers of search and seizure suggest that the era of midnight knocks and truncheon-wielding interrogators in secret detention centers may not be far off (indeed, may have already arrived for those luckless enough to be named as "terror suspects").

Orwell's Party perpetuates orthodoxy by ceaseless propaganda, which includes a generous dose of mind-numbing popular culture. Here too, modern life imitates art, except that our Ministry of Truth is more diffuse: dozens, perhaps hundreds, of government agencies work tirelessly to "stay on message" promoting a wide range of ill-advised, wasteful, and usually unconstitutional programs to a credulous public, while the entertainment industry churns out an unending stream of insipid songs and television shows, not to mention baser products like pornography.

Perhaps most ominously, 1984's state of perpetual war eerily foreshadows our own amorphous war on terrorism, which, we have already been assured, will certainly last for a generation or more. And, as in Orwell's dystopia, war without end has been used to justify a wide range of curtailments of our freedom. The longer the war lasts, the greater and more numerous such curtailments will become. We might even find ourselves, like the hapless residents of Oceania, coming to accept war as a permanent condition.

Soulless View of Humanity

Yet parallels between Orwell's vision and modern reality are easily overdrawn. For one thing, Orwell's entire story is predicated on a bleak and soulless view of humanity. His characters, sympathetic for their tragic predicament, are amoral and devoid of spirituality. Nowhere in 1984 can any hint of lingering moral conviction or religiosity be found. No churches nor any trace of Christian belief survive anywhere, and what's more, no attempt has been made to perpetuate or revive them.

This contradicts human nature, even under conditions of the starkest totalitarianism. Semi-secret conclaves of worshippers kept faith and religion-based morality alive even during the darkest night of Stalinism in the Soviet Union, and religion has proven just as resilient in Communist China and in many other places where the hammer and sickle have temporarily held sway.

Yet Winston Smith, asked in the Ministry of Love by his interrogator whether he believes in God, stoutly denies it. Elsewhere Winston, during his first tryst with Julia, confides: "I hate purity, I hate goodness. I don't want any virtue to exist anywhere. I want everyone to be corrupt to the bones." For her part, Julia has little interest in Winston's philosophical gripes with the Party; her chief objection to the "swine" who try to control her is that Party orthodoxy interferes with her sexual promiscuity.

Winston and Julia, in other words, are less than virtuous heroes, and the novel's objections to totalitarianism are little more than warmed-over humanism. When inducted by the mysterious O'Brien into the supposed mysteries of the revolutionary underground, both of them profess readiness to commit appalling crimes, including mass murder and attacks on children, to further the goals of the resistance, if they are asked to do so. His willingness to carry out such crimes is used later against Winston during his interrogation, to show that he is in no whit morally superior to the Party he abhors.

The use of language is a central theme of Orwell's novel. One of Winston's professional acquaintances, an intellectual named Syme, is involved in the project of simplifying the language, eliminating words and usages deemed unnecessary or threatening, and rewriting the dictionary into the bargain. "It's a beautiful thing, the destruction of words," a gloating Syme tells Winston over lunch. "Don't you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten.... Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller."

Unfortunately for Orwell's prophecy (but luckily for us), human language does not work the way Syme believes. For one thing, Modern English, thanks to a steady flood of new words, is growing rather than diminishing in complexity, a trend unlikely to change any time soon.

But more than this, human thought is not merely linguistic. Language is merely one component of thought, and words are one type of mental sign--but by no means the only one--by which thought is accomplished. Most thought, in fact, consists not only of words but also of mental pictures and reactions to various kinds of sensory stimuli.

Real humans, unlike the hapless meat machines who inhabit Orwell's dystopia, have hearts and souls, and instinctively seek meaning beyond the brute material world. They strive for growth, for independence, for God. To be sure, they can be hindered, deceived, manipulated, even fettered. But higher human impulses like love, spirituality, and independent thought and action, cannot be completely extinguished.

A more likely outcome of our march toward absolutism is found not in the writings of Orwell, who seems never truly to have grasped the nature of Western man, but in those of Alexis de Tocqueville, the 19th-century Frenchman whose observations on American government and society are among the most insightful ever compiled. Tocqueville warned of the long-term danger of a "supreme power" which "covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people."

Modern America seems much closer to Tocqueville's "soft despotism" than to the "Oligarchical Collectivism" of Orwell's Oceania. But the CCTV cameras, the warrantless wiretaps, the deluge of propaganda, American-style, and the specter of war without end all point toward a future of ever-expanding state controls over every aspect of life. Unless Americans soon find a way to put this train in reverse, our children and grandchildren may inherit a world little less daunting than Orwell's horrifying vision.
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Title Annotation:CLASSIC REVISITED
Author:Scaliger, Charles
Publication:The New American
Date:May 14, 2007
Words:1938
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