There’s a lot written lately about “fake news,” the widespread dissemination of misinformation. This is nothing new. Fake news has been around at least as long as gossip and probably longer. No one can know more than her own perspective, and to presume otherwise leads to trouble.
Seven years ago, I re-read George Orwell’s classic dystopic novel, 1984, published in 1949. In this book, history was deliberately re-written on a regular basis by the Party of the infamous Big Brother.
1984 opens with protagonist Winston Smith going home at lunch to write in the secret diary he bought on the black market. He works at the Ministry of Truth falsifying old news accounts.
Author George Orwell gets right to the point and packs the desolation of the times into the first few pages, describing the old, worn apartment building Winston lives in, Victory Mansions, with elevator that rarely works, the smell of boiled cabbage, the leaky roof, suspicious, deadened people. We hear about Hate Week and Two Minutes Hate being a part of the daily routine.
The telescreen in his living room transmits both ways, and you can’t turn it off. Smith lives in the world of the eternal present, in which the past is continually re-written People disappear, and all record of them expunged. There is perpetual war. Smith lives in Oceania, which is currently at war with Eurasia and at peace with Eastasia, but despite obliterated history, Winston remembers only four years ago, Eastasia was the enemy and Eurasia the friend.
Posters, stamps, coins, cigarettes and myriad other things bear Big Brother’s face and the ominous “Big Brother is watching you.” We have Thought Police. We have the party’s slogans: “War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength.” News is so disconnected from what’s really happening that it is a farce, yet no one remembers clearly whether things have ever been different.
Language defines thought, and 1984 speaks to this more succinctly than anything I’ve ever read. The point of Newspeak was to reduce the number of words, to constrict thought, render it homogeneous and controllable.
Midway through the novel, Smith is having an affair with Julia, a Party member who passed him a note saying “I love you,” when she fell in the hall and he helped her up. She is 15 years his junior and content to live a double life of hating the Party while pretending to be a model member. She is purely sensual, uninterested in politics except as it affects her life. She believes war is frustrated sexual desire and that sexually satisfied people have no need or desire to fight. This, she says, is why the Party outlaws it except between husband and wife, and only for the purpose of having children, and providing no one enjoys it.
Winston knows from the beginning he is doomed, just doesn’t know when his time will come. Every move is watched, every facial expression, every sound transmitted over the telescreen. Solitude is suspicious, as is unaccounted-for time.
Smith eventually takes Julia to meet with O’Brien, an inner party member he believes is a member of a subversive organization, the Brotherhood. This organization is reputed to be headed by an Emanuel Goldstein, the demonized “Enemy of the People.” O’Brian says he is indeed a member of the Brotherhood and enlists Winston’s participation, exacting promises to do whatever is necessary, on command, without asking questions, and expecting no rewards or acknowledgement.
Smith loses my allegiance when he says he is willing to abase himself to defeat Big Brother. He dehumanizes himself with that commitment, and becomes no better than those he condemns. He is willing to trade one overlord for another, perpetuating the cycle.
After meeting with O’Brien, Winston gets the forbidden Goldstein book and begins to read it, but he is then arrested in his hideaway just before reading the “Why?” of the party’s obsession.
The rest of the book is about Winston’s capture, imprisonment, torture, and re-education by O’Brien. O’Brien says the party decides what reality is, and a lone individual like O’Brien cannot contest it. The party is immortal. He says the party did not make the mistake of previous dictatorships, (thereby admitting a past before the Party): socialist governments that pretended to claim power merely long enough to establish justice and equality. No. The party wants power for its own sake, and it wants to use that power to crush all individuality and potential resistance. But even Winston Smith, during his interrogation, protests that such a brutal power structure as O’Brien describes could not sustain itself and would self-destruct.
In the end, of course, when O’Brien threatens to put a rat cage over Winston’s face, he commits the ultimate betrayal: he begs to have them sick the rats on Julia, instead.
And, of course, the final two sentences—which I’ve remembered for 30 years, verbatim: “He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.”
Although George Orwell is uncannily prescient in some of his observations, like the muddying of language, the telescreen, and the homogenization of individuals into a mass mind where individuality is a crime, he cannot account for factors that make totalitarianism unsustainable. We are now seeing the disintegration of the power structure that bleeds individuals to support itself. It boils down to the simple fact that armed or violent resistance only reinforces the power structure, but non-participation and withdrawal deplete it. Orwell is looking at an urban population dependent on infrastructure and easily controlled supply chains.
Also, while Orwell claims history is being wiped out by revisions in books, statues, streets, churches, and newspapers, he overlooks the fact that the dilapidated architecture itself bespeaks a more competent society, because those buildings were once new, with roofs and plumbing in good working order.
Orwell also deprives his characters of any curiosity outside politics or basic amenities. In his first rendez-vous with Julia in the country, Winston is transfixed by the song of a thrush. There is no other evidence of anyone doing anything useful, and the appreciation for the bird is an exception.
The characterization of perpetual war merely for the purpose of destroying excessive production, the three entities perpetually at odds with each other, the control of people by controlling their minds, is uncanny. There’s a reference to 1914 as the turning point in history.
Doublethink, the ability to hold two mutually exclusive views at the same time and believe them both, is crucial.
But men have always thought in terms of violent revolutions that are manipulated simply to switch one power elite for another. They do not recognize that these systems disintegrate from within because those in power can’t trust each other. I believe the violence comes later, once people see how weak the structure has become.
I say you control by controlling the food and water supplies, and the product lines, a much more fundamental and practical method, if power is your aim. Of course the power brokers know that, and all this talk about controlling minds is intellectual camouflage. It’s hard to imagine Big Brother having much power in a rural area where people have more resources at their disposal.
George Orwell, pen name for Eric Arthur Blair, died a year after 1984 was published, at the age of 46. He had lived through both world wars, the Depression, and had lived in poverty through much of his adult life. He foresaw much of what is happening now, and he was discouraged about the future of mankind. But in the final analysis, 1984 is a masterpiece of tight prose, excellent descriptions, good character development, and interesting plot, well worth reading.