It seems far-fetched to compare today's America to the totalitarian nightmare of Orwell's "1984." But the novel can also be read as a warning about the failings of mass democracies, especially in wartimeby Timothy Snyder / November 21, 2004 / Leave a comment
Written in 1948, George Orwell’s 1984 has been interpreted as a fearful description of the power of communism to rule minds. In the actual year 1984, when the novel received renewed attention, no one doubted that its subject was the Soviet Union, the “evil empire” of Ronald Reagan’s famous phrase. Yet reread today, the story, and its setting, give one pause. The action of 1984 takes place not in Moscow, but in London. In the story, London and Britain have been absorbed by a larger transatlantic empire, known as Oceania. The heartland of Oceania is today’s US. In the world Orwell describes, it is not socialism that has failed, but rather modernity and mass democracy. The state has outgrown society, and rulers have found techniques to maintain permanent power while denying prosperity and liberty to their populations. While Orwell is unsparing in his descriptions of torture, violence is not his main subject. In Oceania, people generally believe what their rulers tell them because they cannot articulate their disagreement, or because they lack the imagination to consider alternatives. The power of the state to prevent independent thought is Orwell’s true subject.
Reread by an American in 2004, the novel 1984 finds surprising points of contact with everyday reality. To be sure, the US of today is obviously not the totalitarian society that Orwell describes. Yet Orwell wrote the novel for citizens of democratic societies as a warning about possible futures, and some of his concerns seem rather timely. Take the three slogans of Oceania’s rulers: War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength. The current US president constantly defines the Americans as a peaceful people. Yet the only foreign policy innovation of his administration has been the doctrine of pre-emptive war. The president constantly speaks of freedom; it has become a kind of verbal tic. Yet his administration is the only one since the 1940s substantially to reduce the civil rights of Americans. The word “strong” appears incessantly in official pronouncements of all kinds. The president, it appears, maintains his own strength by purposefully ignoring the world around him. In so far as this makes him more likeable, it is indeed his political strength.
How can such contradictory ideas be persuasive? Part of the answer has to do with the manipulation of the language itself, with what Orwell called Newspeak. In Oceania, Newspeak progressively replaced standard English, reducing the number…