1984, George Orwell, 1949
Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 has again become a best seller and maybe even more relevant today than it was when it first appeared in 1949. It is impossible to see what is happing in our country today without thinking of Orwell’s warnings from 1984.
I had read 1984 a couple of times; once in high school as a precocious teenager, and later in college, as a want-a-be political intellectual. But I don’t think I understood Orwell’s vision, and with it, his warnings of what could be unless we were continuously vigilant and watchful of the powers that lie just under the surface of our fragile democracy.
During this present political situation, I have become acutely aware of 1984’s warnings. This review is less for those who have yet to read 1984, and more for those, like me, who really need to read it again.
The year 1984 is now in our past, but Orwell’s vision very well could be our present. It describes a time when the concept of Truth is not only challenged but has been usurped.
“War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.”
1984 is described as a novel of an autocratic time when all citizens are under the dictatorship of “The Party” led by the never seen “Big Brother”. But the real story is how The Party came to be in complete control of everything in the first place. There are the perpetual wars, and the round-the-clock surveillance of all citizens (“Big Brother is Watching you.”); things that our present society has frighteningly become accustomed to.
The “telescreens” that hung on Orwell’s walls, we now hold in our hands. What really keeps The Party in 1984 in control, what keeps the population subservient, is that the state controls our thought. The Party decides what the Truth is. Could this be happening today?
What makes 1984 so pertinent to our present time? The following are a few quotes (1984 quotes in italics) that, when put into the context of our present political situation, show how prescient Orwell was.
On the president’s very first day in office his press secretary Sean Spicer was caught telling a falsehood during a press briefing (about the Inaugural Address crowd size), Kelly Anne Conway explained it by saying, “our press secretary gave alternative facts.”
Orwell’s concept of “Doublethink” describes how we can believe in “alternative facts” once we are politically indoctrinated.
“Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.”
Orwell tells us that The Party favors the use of “Newspeak”, a language designed to diminish the range of thought. An example of Newspeak is things are not “bad”, they are “ungood”. Today “I would” do something becomes “I wouldn’t” depending not on what the speaker means but how it plays out in public.
The president has said, “I have the best words.” And when he refers to people as “Crooked” this, and “Lying” that, and an “Infestation”, we soon stop thinking of them as who they really are and begin to see them as the speaker wants them to be seen.
The result from the use of “Newspeak” is that language is not used to enlighten thought and increase understanding but to curtail our thinking and narrow our minds.
“It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words.”
To quote from a recent speech from our president, “What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what is happening.”
Orwell was warning us that a time like this was coming.
“And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed—if all records told the same tale—then the lie passed into history and became truth. ‘Who controls the past’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.‘”
The great American thinkers, the Marx Brothers, in their philosophical treatise Duck Soup, described our current political condition quite correctly. And it makes for an accurate summary of 1984’s main warnings.
In a quote usually misattributed to Groucho Marx from the movie Duck Soup. Margaret Dumont is getting ready for bed and sees Groucho run out of her bedroom. She turns around and takes off her robe just as Chico, disguised as Groucho, nightgown, mustache, glasses, cigar, and all, comes out from under the bed where he’s been hiding. She is shocked and asked him (thinking this is Groucho) how he could still be here. She just saw him run out of the room a moment ago.
Margaret Dumont : “But I saw you with my own eyes.”
Chico: “Well, Who Ya Gonna Believe, Me or Your Own Eyes.”
As 1984 concludes, Winston Smith now finally sees that 2+2 can equal 5, or whatever The Party says it equals.
“But it was alright, everything was alright, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.”
1984 does not end happily for those who still love the Truth. There are those in today’s society who when asked the same question continually asked of Winston Smith, “How many fingers am I holding up?” will answer like Winston Smith finally does once he learns to love Big Brother, “Whatever you say is okay with me.”
Let’s hope that with our continuous vigilance and watchfulness The Lie does not become The Truth, and Orwell’s vision will be proved wrong, and the Truth will prevail. Unlike Chico Marx, George Orwell wants you to believe your own eyes.