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George Orwell – Penman or Prophet?

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Why Orwell's "1984" totalitarian predictions may not be just a scary story

George Orwell – Penman or Prophet?
© 2009 Steve Tracy

No matter what age you are, it’s hard not to be captivated by Orwell’s tale of totalitarianism, penned in 1949 - as one of his many not-so-subtle expressions of concern with British socialistic leanings during the turbulent post WWII period. Some would argue today that his gloomy warnings for 1984 have turned out to be eerily prophetic - perhaps just a little premature. The book essentially envisions an all-powerful system of government that rules and exploits utilizing fear, cognitive manipulation and re-training, and perhaps most significantly, technology – to control the masses, and benefit a very fortunate few.

Doublethink

Orwell offers several key observations that appear strikingly accurate in modern-day America, as well as elsewhere. Perhaps the most chilling and pervasive is the concept of “Doublethink,” wherein one believes two completely conflicting ideas at the same time, (which in and of itself requires the use of “Doublethink.”) This notion is necessary in order to successfully advance multiple – generally profitable and often inconsistent - agendas. As an example, despite the fact that our nation’s prison population has multiplied by almost ten-fold over the last 30 years, politicians and law enforcement leaders continue to bandy about terms like “progressive,” “advanced,” and “rehabilitation.” The U.S. currently proportionally incarcerates almost five times as many citizens as other similar countries. So contrary to whatever lofty terms that may be floating about, it would appear from simply following the money trail, that authorities in all areas are primarily concerned with more walls, more bars, more guards, more parole and probation officers – MORE MONEY. We’re either a dangerously malevolent people, or something is seriously amiss. “Land of the Free??” Really??

A telling survey was conducted among American teachers, with the same singular question asked in both 1955 and 2005: “What are your biggest concerns as an educator today?” Back in the “Happy Days,” typical responses involved gum under the desks (literally,) outdated curricula, and the occasional scuffle in the bathroom or parking lot. Fast forward fifty years, and the feedback is slightly different. Weapon-wielding 12-year-olds, bomb threats, drugs, and assaults and murders on campus, are now among the top responses.

Here’s where the “Doublethink” comes in: it’s almost universally believed today that we’ve “progressed” in the areas of both criminal justice and child-rearing over the last half-century, yet most of us also “know” and accept these other disturbing facts as truth.

With a closer eye, one can observe innumerable instances of the “doublethink” dynamic in everyday life; butter is good, butter is bad, terror alert level 3 today (exactly how afraid should we be today, of “terrorists?”) “Good” cholesterol vs. “bad” cholesterol, equality under the law, on and on, ad nauseum. The key is in recognizing the sludge for what it is: subtle but successful means of controlling how we think, in order to advance specific agendas. The solution? Always think about what you’re thinking about, and be brutally honest with yourself amidst the results. Ask yourself, “Do I know this to be actually true, or have I just been told (programmed) to believe it?” Above all – question everything.

Newspeak

“Newspeak” is another of Orwell’s exceptionally insightful observations. The “Party,” (body in power) understands that the way people express themselves and communicate with one another has enormous impact on both individuals and society at large. “Newspeak” is the language developed by the Party to help maintain and increasingly constrict their control over the population. By “inventing” words, as well as encouraging, discouraging, and outright outlawing certain terminologies, the Party is able to manipulate the way the people think – and thus influence their actions.

It’s no stretch currently to witness “Newspeak” in action – most instances of trying to establish or maintain “political correctness” entail the concept. In the late 1980’s, under extensive pressure from various activist groups, the American Psychological Association altered their official definitions of homosexual behaviors effectively from “deviant” to “alternative.” This is in no way to pass judgment on those choices, but to illustrate a very telling example. (The previous statement came forth all but automatically, an effort in itself to stay “politically correct.”) By definition, “deviant” is that which differs from the norm, so homosexuality technically fits that description – only a very small minority of the overall population are homosexual. We also know however, that the term “deviant” often carries an extremely negative connotation, especially in the arena of sexuality. Thus, a “deviant” classification – beyond being a simple definition, in actuality (albeit unintentionally) encouraged an inherently negative public image and attitude toward those of homosexual persuasion.

Since then, we have observed a cultural shift in overall perception of homosexuality and its practitioners, as well as related behaviors. For the most part, mainstream society now not only tolerates homosexuality, but what was once disdained and virtually outcast has evolved into just another piece in the mosaic of our social order. This is certainly not to say that only “newspeak” was responsible for this shift, but it surely contributed, and clearly reflects it.

Alcoholism and other substance addictions supply another prime example. Not so long ago, by and large considered simply selfish, out-of-control behaviors, most psychologists and therapists now subscribe to the “disease” model – and our whole social paradigm has changed reflecting this. Those historically communally scorned and looked down upon - are now given a hug and a hand up. So, identical behavior is perceived and responded to completely differently, largely due to a simple shift in terminology.

Most any attempts to rephrase or re-moniker people or behaviors inherently carry with them “newspeak” implications, and are at times actually beneficial to everyone concerned (as witnessed in many long overdue racial terminology improvements.) However, it would be remiss not to observe some examples of the use of “newspeak” to accomplish alternative, more disturbing purposes.

Re-terming “traffic complaint” to “traffic citation” for example, effectively euphemizes a situation, while universally unpleasant, is decidedly more unpleasant for those of lower income brackets. This subtle change is arguably an effort to take the focus off of (re-program) the inherent unfairness of this form of punishment. The undeniable truth is that, the more money someone makes, the more crime (at least on the road) they can get away with. Where is the “liberty and justice for all,” in this? How can “equal protection under the law” possibly exist, when the actual punishments for identical crimes are so blatantly varied, because of financial inequality? Imposing community service sentences or income-based fines offer a clearly more “just” solution, but are not very likely, given the ubiquity of this “punishment.” Anything that can help distract the masses from this deeply-entrenched fault in “the American Way,” would fall under “newspeak.” To borrow and paraphrase from another famous Orwell work, “All men are created equal, some are just more equal than others.”

Of course, there’s the rather timely “enhanced interrogation” vs. “torture.” Given that all the facts have not been brought to light yet, it would be unfair at this time to state categorically that “torture” has actually taken place; for this argument, that’s not necessarily even relevant. The “newspeak” nevertheless lies in euphemizing processes that are inarguably untoward; in order to aid the public to more easily accept what simply may be going on - and according to Orwell, the very essence of “newspeak”.

Thoughtcrime

This can be one of the most difficult topics within Orwell’s construct to identify and analyze, but is no less relevant for being so. Orwell’s discussion of thoughtcrime in “1984” listed it as being the beginning of all other criminal behaviors. American society has not quite arrived at that, (some would argue that in a “de facto” sense – we indeed are,) but we are doubtlessly heading in this direction. With so many infringements on freedom of speech already in place, it doesn’t seem to be an unrealistic jump to postulate the coming of the potential for certain thoughts to be considered “criminal behaviors.” The evident challenge would be in proving what people are or were thinking at a given time, but this has long been effectively established in the legal forms of “criminal intent,” “absence of malice,” “premeditation,” etc.

The purpose of mentioning free speech in this context is that what we say and how we say it, (as discussed in the “newspeak” section,) affects us individually, as well as society as a whole – and usually reflects what we’re thinking. No matter how opposed an individual, group, or society itself may be to certain problematic or controversial ideas or doctrines, the U.S. Constitution supposedly guarantees the rights to express them freely, without fear of reprisal. By limiting free speech (and therefore free thought) purportedly to serve the greater good, we rip open a Pandora’s Box chock full of potential limitations upon our people’s creativity, our rights to say and think what we want to (right to be ‘wrong’,) and ultimately, our actual abilities to truly govern ourselves. We’re already far too mired in an almost unlimited host of special-interest serving rules, regulations, and other controlling agendas.

How Technology Fits In

The “Patriot Act” is possibly the most unpatriotic piece of legislation that our country has ever enacted. In effect, it brings to life virtually all of Orwell’s dreaded fears, at once. Less than a year after its inception, Alberto Gonzales, and the eight other now infamous federal prosecutors, had to take only the first in a series of falls resulting from abuse of it. Under the Patriot Act’s gargantuan umbrella of invasiveness, an almost inconceivable plethora of personal and legal infringements have taken place - that have absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with “terrorism” of any type. By eliminating the necessity of a court order to tap a telephone, for example, we remove a valuable check from our justice system, and engender opportunities for civil and personal rights violations that would likely be far beyond anything the founding fathers could have even conceived of.

A particularly chilling (and not widely known) example, is that most cellular phones can be used to track people’s whereabouts, and even listen in on conversations taking place – even when the phone is turned off! The earpiece speaker works equally well as microphone, so “private” conversations and other activities can be monitored at all times, unless one has the presence of mind to remove the battery.

Computers, even when not directly connected to the internet, have long been used by law enforcement as remote listening and viewing devices (via WIFI.) All this is not even to mention, of course, interception and monitoring of all types of email and other internet communications – all in the interest of “national security,” and all now accomplishable without the bothersome necessity of obtaining a warrant of any kind, which in turn removes the healthy, rights-protecting obstacle of a presumably disinterested third party (judge,) from the decision process. So, like “jumbo shrimp” and “military intelligence,” “secure internet” has become somewhat of an oxymoron following the advent of the “Patriot” Act. If all that is not alarming enough, President Obama has recently conscripted one of the most notorious hackers in history into the government’s already formidable army of “techno-geeks.” So how much of this is actually about safety and security, and how much about control?

To Conclude

George Orwell glimpsed something that all would be well-served to examine very closely, given the dangerous downhill trend of rapidly eroding civil rights for the sake of “security and safety:” – the seeds of excessive regulation and control invariably mature into weeds of abuse of power. The notion of fairness was originally, universally, and purposely woven throughout the entire fabric of the United States’ governmental and civic structures - a noble and beautiful work of art - which has all but evaporated in recent years. Undeniably, freedom has a price that extends beyond the battlefields, beyond high-minded rhetoric, beyond simply being “safe and secure.” Many would still prefer the possibility of being blown to bits on a plane or at a football game, rather than taking off their shoes before entering either. Fear in and of real life (as imagined in “1984”) has been steadily and gainfully employed throughout history, controlling and manipulating societies for ulterior and more sinister purposes. It’s been said that if we refuse to learn from history, then it’s destined to repeat itself. Benjamin Franklin phrased this yet more aptly: “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” If the American people continue to sit by, and day in day out allow our privacies, choices, and liberties to be legislated and regulated away, just exactly what do we deserve?

Copyright 2009, Steve Tracy (used by permission)
Special Thanks to A.O. Kime, for input, encouragement, and arguing.

Last modified: 03/11/16