Big Brother needs to subordinate history—that is, what actually happened—to the political desire of the moment, so much so that we no longer even expect objective news; in fact, we doubt the very possibility of it.
When George Orwell’s 1984 first appeared in print seventy years ago, no one could have predicted its enormous influence. It gave a nightmare form and a new vocabulary to the “ideal” totalitarian state, versions of which were a hallmark of the 20th century. Everyone in my generation knows terms from the novel, such as “newspeak” and the “Thought Police,” and “Big Brother” remains cultural shorthand for omnipresent state surveillance. Orwell’s insight in this dystopian novel is astonishing—“dystopian,” not because it depicts a dysfunctional world, but because it depicts one that functions all too well, a political utopia with a functional understanding of human nature.
“Big Brother Is Watching You” say the ubiquitous posters in Orwell’s Oceania—and the brilliance of calling this altogether imaginary leader “Big Brother” deserves a little appreciation. Ideally, an older brother should love, protect, and guide his younger siblings since he’s been through difficulties they haven’t yet faced, and he can help them. By calling their supposed leader “Big Brother” the propagandists of Oceania invoke the dynamics of home (one big happy family), and precisely here Orwell’s satirical power becomes most evident. There’s a big difference between saying “Your Father Is Watching You” or “Your Mother Is Watching You” and giving that role to “Big Brother.” Parents tend to love all their children—but big brother? Not so much. Both paternal power and filial piety vanish in the totalitarian state. In Machiavellian terms, the big brother actually has authority over the younger children because he’s not only stronger than they are, but he can also rat them out with self-righteous satisfaction. The Big Brother of Oceania is semi-transcendent, the face hovering over everything, apparently friendly and benevolent but actually an omnipresent power of intimidation.
Orwell imagines a system of surveillance capable of invading every ostensibly private space with its watchful and always political eye. The technology of what Orwell imagined was far beyond anything actually possible in 1949, but seventy years later, the world has caught up. As the Wall Street Journal columnist Holman Jenkins wrote a couple of weeks ago, “By now, your every transaction is cataloged by companies looking to sell you stuff. Your emails are impersonally surveyed by algorithms for a predisposition to buy an exercise bike or baby supplies. License-plate readers track us wherever we go in our cars and bill us automatically for tolls and traffic infractions.” And who knows what secret conversations Alexa is whispering into the great ear of Amazon?
Recent news stories have revealed how accurate the new technology of face recognition is—and what can be done with it. Jenkins says that the singer Taylor Swift uses face recognition to scan the crowds at her concerts for stalkers. More alarming is the fact that Chinese systems are so sophisticated they can pick out one dissenter in a stadium holding tens of thousands. But Jenkins urges us not to worry, arguing that “democratic pushback can sort it out.” In his view, “Totalitarian regimes will always seek opportunities to behave in totalitarian ways. The problem isn’t technology, it’s a lack of democracy.”
Well, maybe. Just this month, police in London arrested a man who hid his face from the cameras when they were testing their face-recognition software on the streets. They charged him with “disorderly conduct” when he had the gall to object to his arrest. They wanted to know why would he hide his face if he was innocent of wrongdoing. His face, by implication, belonged to the realm of public surveillance, not to him.
What uncivil thought are you harboring? Big Brother wants to know. Orwell’s totalitarian state in 1984 attempts to erase any difference between the citizen and the state. A “thought crime” disturbs a wholehearted, righteous affirmation of the desired opinion, as would a doubt in some contemporary circles about gay marriage or the right of a first-grader to undergo an operation to change genders. One may not even think it. Orwell’s novel is wonderfully useful in anticipating these power tactics. Terms such as “Thought Police” immediately reveal dangerous tendencies in the politically correct climate of our day, where truth is rarely the issue. Big Brother needs to subordinate history—that is, what actually happened—to the political desire of the moment, so much so that we no longer even expect objective news; in fact, we doubt the very possibility of it. That’s why Orwell’s work remains a crucial text for us.
Crucial as it is culturally, 1984 is not in the curriculum at Wyoming Catholic College, because it has a more exclusively political aim than the novels of Cervantes, Melville, Dostoevsky, and Faulkner that do make it into our canon; Winston Smith and the other characters of the novel are functions, with no roundedness or subtlety. This functionality is part of Orwell’s point, but it also indicates a conscious step back from full engagement with the reality of the world. Nevertheless, a curriculum like ours provides the context to read 1984 well. What does Orwell’s Oceania look like, for example, next to Socrates’ “city-in-speech” in the Republic? Or next to Dante’s Commedia?
Orwell’s work illustrates a point made by Josef Goebbels and swallowed whole by the proponents of identity politics in our day: “The essence of propaganda is not in variety, but rather the forcefulness and persistence with which one selects ideas from the larger pool and hammers them into the masses using the most varied methods.” Hammering in a few selected ideas is at the farthest remove from genuine liberal education, whose aim is to free both mind and spirit and to engage the whole person with reality, including what actually happens. It is still possible, even now, to hide one’s face in a great book. And rumors of real conversations persist.
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