On June 7th, 2017, longstanding Arizona Senator, John McCain, said that the testimony of U.S Intelligence Director, Dan Coats’ before Congress “shows what kind of Orwellian existence that we live in” (CNBC). McCain was astonished that Coates refused to comment to the Senate Intelligence Committee on details of documented conversations he had with Trump before the President fired ex-FBI Director, James Comey. McCain’s comment raises the question about whether he thought that the United States had already entered into the dystopian society that author George Orwell (pen name of Eric Arthur Blair) warned about in 1948 in his prophetic book, 1984. In this classic book, the party in power (at that time—Big Brother) constantly denies the existence of previously known events to justify its official views. Orwell describes methods like “doublethink” as the ability to hold two contradictory views and believe both of them at convenient times. A key slogan of the Orwellian Society is “Who can control the past controls the future.” The concepts and language that Orwell used in 1984 have now have become part of our everyday language. These developments are noteworthy for a prophetic book that is approaching the age of seventy. As I noted in our discussion of 1984 in my Classic Book Club (in Midlothian, Virginia), “this book keeps speaking to us even when we don’t want to keep hearing about it.” Several of our members were deeply disturbed by reading it, but most agreed that we needed to be constantly reminded about it.
In the novel, the protagonist, Winston Smith, hopes to win a battle against Big Brother but is stunned (notice Orwell’s double play on his name) when he was turned-in by party spies for “thoughtcrime-” any thought action which goes against the government. Even an accusation was the same thing as being found guilty and is punished by having the perpetrator’s existence “evaporated” from the official public record until he became an “unperson.” Ironically, before his capture, Smith worked in the Government’s Ministry of Truth. His job was to expunge and re-write all records he found of people and events in history which differed from the ever-changing government’s positions. The differences between Smith’s views in his work and in his personal life illustrate how a person could use doublethink. One of Winston’s Smith’s earliest thoughtcrimes in 1984 was to attempt to keep a diary to “remain sane” and to “carry on the human heritage.” In his first entry, he writes, “To the future or to the past, to a time when thought is free when men are different from one another and do not live alone—to a time when truth exists and what is done cannot be undone. From the age of uniformity…from the age of Big Brother, from the age of doublethink—greetings!”
Orwell emphasized how governments used language and doublethink by misrepresenting the missions of the principal agencies: The Ministry of Peace was in charge of perpetual war planning and execution; The Ministry of Plenty was in charge of creating rosy and false statements about the false high productivity of the economy; The Ministry of Love was responsible for reprogramming people’s false thoughts before they were shot. The book forces to consider whether it would ever be possible for governments to completely control the personal thoughts of people. In the way that 1984 ends, readers must question whether party officials were ultimately able to control Winston’s thoughts and make him love Big Brother. Among the other tools that the government implemented to control the population’s thinking was the pervasive use of “telescreens,” or pervasive two-way cameras for all members of the Inner Party (the high-ranking party members) and the Outer Party (the technocrats employed to disseminate and enforce government dogma). The broadcasting side of the telescreens was constantly transmitting party rhetoric and hate speech against the real or imagined enemies of the state. At the same time, the receiving side was regularly monitoring the actions, facial expressions, and thoughts of its citizens for possible signs of non-compliance and disloyalty. People often use the 1984 phrase, “Big Brother is watching you” when they are referring to the modern-day reality of technologies that constantly monitor our locations and activities. The third class of the population, The Proles, did not need to be scrutinized by telescreens or need close monitoring because they were not educated enough to be stirred into action to rise up against the government. Instead, they could easily be controlled through the government’s promotion of popular entertainment, sports, alcohol, and the sale of lottery tickets. One of the main slogans of the party was that “Ignorance is Strength.” Orwell’s portrayal of the Proles asks modern readers to consider the ways that governments have used and continue to use media and propaganda to keep the general population diverted from the issues that should be most significant to them.
In an Orwellian Society, Coates’s statement about the conversations he claimed to have had with the President never occurred. Therefore, any suggestion of them would be considered as a “witch hunt.” Furthermore, even the existence of ex-FBI Director Comey would be denied, as he would have already been undergoing secret psychological re-programming under torture for his thoughtcrime. Those who still don’t live in an Orwellian Society may still remember that Comey had accused the President of asking him to close down a Russian collusion investigation of a loyal Big Brother Party member, General Michael Flynn. The President even hinted that Comey’s conversations “might have been recorded.” Earlier in his Presidency, one of his advisors, Kelly Anne Conway, in support of her boss’s allegations that his conversations were “wiretapped” by former President Obama, noted that the use of modern technology enabled others to spy on others through “toasters and microwaves.” Conway’s statements are most ironic because they suggest that one Big Brother was watching another Big Brother.
Orwell’s book re-emerges as a “must-read” and 2017 has been one of its bestselling years because of our present political dramas and because political leaders in both parties have attempted to manipulate information to gain more political power. However, at least since the early nineteenth century, authors like Mary Shelley, in her book, Frankenstein (1818), have attempted to warn us about the perils of unimpeded power. In 1843, Edgar Allan Poe, in his story, “The Pit and the Pendulum” alluded to the Spanish Inquisition’s and its attempt to torture and execute an individual accused of disloyalty. Besides these authors, Orwell was also influenced by the futuristic writing style of H.G Wells, and of Aldus Huxley’s 1931 dystopian novel, Brave New World, where the government used classical reconditioning and government repression of thought, to create a frightening future view of humanity. In turn, Orwell’s writing deeply inspired other dystopian authors and works, such as Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (1954) and The Handmaids Tale by Margaret Atwood (2005). Orwell, who worked in the 1940’s for the BBC, was familiar with, and sometimes was asked to deliver Britain’s biased positive reporting of the outcomes of its troop’s battles in World War II to conform to the government’s position. However, he was even more shocked with the ways that Stalin’s Communist government and Hitler’s despotic regime constructed fake news and propaganda to build their power, control the reporting of news, and reduce divergent thinking through intimidation, torture, and assassination of political opponents.
Though Orwell was not suggesting that governments as oppressive as Stalin or Hitler could gain access to power in modern Europe or the United States, his book does attempt to warn us about the dark possibilities of the future. Thought the ideas he expressed in his book may have seemed radical and unrealistic in earlier years, present events may need us to re-think our past positions. For example, could it ever be justified for governments to arrest people for thought crimes simply for expressing views against the government? Before concluding that such actions would be outrageous, we might need to be reminded that several terrorists who later took murderous actions against European and American citizens had expressed radical views against their governments on the Internet. Reporters and citizens have asked if suspected terrorists could have been, or should be arrested for “thoughtcrimes.” In the present era, maintaining the right balance between freedom of expression and the need for tight security to protect our freedoms becomes increasingly complex. By characterizing Big Brother as dark and democratic leaders as always virtuous oversimplifies the many complex issues we face in 2017. If we take away anything from 1984, it is that we must be ever vigilant to control our future by searching for and expressing our most objective views of the present, and questioning everyone’s views of the past, even our own!
Dr. Murray Ellison received a Master’s in Education from Temple University (1973), a Master’s Degree of Arts in English Literature from Virginia Commonwealth University (2015), and a Doctorate in Education at Virginia Tech (1988). He is married and has three adult daughters. He retired as the Virginia Director of Community Corrections for the Department of Correctional Education in 2009. He is the founder and chief editor of this literary blog and is an editor for the International Correctional Education Journal. He is the Co-Editor of the 2016 book of poetry, Mystic Verses, by Shambhushivananda. He also serves as a board member, volunteer tour guide, poetry judge, and Facilities Planning Committee Coordinator for the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond Virginia. He teaches literature classes at the OSHER, Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Richmond; is the organizer and coördinator of The First Fridays Classic Book Club; and is a co-organizer, along with Rebecca Elizabeth Jones, of the VCU Working Titles Book Club. Contact Murray at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave a note at the bottom of the post.