Love Your Big Brother: What Orwell’s ‘1984’ Tells Us About 2009

George Orwell
May 2003
The Irony of American History
Reinhold Niebuhr
University of Chicago Press
Apr 2008

“If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face— forever.” —
Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell

“Here is a study in pessimism unrelieved, except by the thought that, if a man can conceive
Nineteen Eighty-Four, he can also will to avoid it. ” – Fredric Warburg, George Orwell’s publisher.

Eternal Dirt

It was 60 years ago this month that
Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece, first found its way into the hands of British readers. In the intervening decades, the novel has taken on inestimable cultural significance and its author has increasingly come to be viewed as a secular prophet.

Nevertheless, a recent poll conducted by the organizers of World Book Day found that
Nineteen Eighty-Four is the novel Britons most frequently lie about having read. Orwell’s previous effort, Animal Farm is perhaps more widely consumed. It’s shorter, for one, and it’s often assigned to children who enjoy Orwell’s storytelling, despite being far too young to appreciate the novel’s political implications.

However, I don’t think Britons lie about having read
Nineteen Eighty-Four because they find Orwell’s prose indigestible. Instead, I believe Nineteen Eighty-Four tops that list because, in a culture that has largely turned away from reading fiction as a leisure activity, it remains one of the few volumes that’s still widely viewed as indispensable.

At the same time, the book is incredibly easy to fake having read. People who have never held a copy of
Nineteen Eighty-Four are nevertheless often familiar with its plot and themes, for living in the English-speaking world means you inhabit a culture from which Orwell’s influence is nearly inextricable. Big Brother. Thought Police. Doublethink. Newspeak. The neologisms that populate Orwell’s novel are now a pervasive part of our contemporary political discourse.

Animal Farm, though to a lesser extent, Nineteen Eighty-Four operates largely as an allegory detailing the evils of Stalinist Russia. Inspired by novels like Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Orwell conjured a futuristic police state that harrowingly evoked the Soviet regime’s brutality. Everything from the revolution’s nascence, to the purges, to the most storied intra-Party squabbles finds its analogue in Orwell’s pages.

But while
Animal Farm takes a macro approach to the Russian Revolution and its attendant ironies, focused as it is largely on characters representing Marx, Stalin, and Trotsky, Nineteen Eighty-Four examines the costs of totalitarianism through a far more intimate lens. Through his protagonist Winston Smith, a low-level Party member who rebels against the dictatorial Big Brother in his innermost thoughts, Orwell forces his readers to appreciate in intimate detail the brutalizing effects of totalitarianism on the human psyche. Where Animal Farm is merely dispiriting, Nineteen Eighty-Four is outright horrific.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was the culmination of a life’s work, and Orwell struggled to finish the novel as he was dying of tuberculosis. Within it one finds the blossoming of incipient roots that date back to his finest essays. I don’t believe Orwell is the 20th Century’s best writer, though he may well be the most important. Likewise, I don’t think that Nineteen Eighty-Four is the century’s best novel, but in many ways, it is the definitive one. The study of literature offers many rewards, but the singular benefits of carefully reading Nineteen Eighty-Four and the essays that preceded it are so important to maintaining a healthy political culture that they warrant particular attention.

All Art Is Propaganda

I submit that a careful, thorough reading of Orwell, of which Nineteen Eighty-Four must certainly be a part, goes beyond making one a better reader, which exposure to any great writing can accomplish, and helps forge better citizens. I can almost feel your eyes rolling, but bear with me. This function is not aesthetic, but pedagogic.

As consoling as it would be to think so, I don’t kid myself that there is causation or even correlation linking a refined aesthetic sense to morality. Exposure to great art will not make you a better person, at least not in any moral sense, and anyone who argues otherwise needs to be reacquainted with Humbert Humbert, not to mention Hermann Goering. Hitler may have committed genocide because he was a failed painter, but not in the way The Reader would have you believe. What Orwell’s writing in general, and Nineteen Eighty-Four in particular, can accomplish is to equip its readers with the intellectual apparatus necessary to see through the routine mendacity and stupefying barrage of euphemism that plagues contemporary political life.

I realize that this may seem a bit utopian. Citizens are, of course, people, and the day-to-day chore of being a person, even a materially comfortable person, relatively speaking (and if you’re reading this, you’re certainly that) can at times feel unendurable. At the end of a long day of repetitive, mind-numbing labour, working up the energy to stay informed about political events can require an almost heroic effort. To analyze these events critically is all the more difficult. But if we accept Alexis de Tocqueville’s claim that citizens of a democracy get the government they deserve, critical engagement with politics is the most important way in which citizens earn better governance.

“Above a quite low level,” Orwell once wrote, “literature is an attempt to influence the viewpoint of one’s contemporaries by recording experience.” The experiences Orwell records, whether in his novels or non-fiction, offer his readers the collective insights of one of the English language’s greatest and most rigorous thinkers. Six decades after his death, it’s clear that his words are of lasting relevance.

Similar Sets of Facts

Orwell stands as one of the 20th century’s foremost chroniclers of evils perpetrated in the name of Communism. This understandably appeals to conservatives. Still, when members of the American Right cite Orwell in support of their arguments, it can be difficult to imagine they’ve seriously read him. In the wake of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, a quotation from one of Orwell’s best essays, “Notes on Nationalism”, was widely circulated among American conservatives. The excerpt reads,

The majority of pacifists either belong to obscure religious sects or are simply humanitarians who object to taking life and prefer not to follow their thoughts beyond that point. But there is a minority of intellectual pacifists whose real though unadmitted motive appears to be hatred of western democracy and admiration for totalitarianism. Pacifist propaganda usually boils down to saying that one side is as bad as the other, but if one looks closely at the writings of the younger intellectual pacifists, one finds that they do not by any means express impartial disapproval but are directed almost entirely against Britain and the United States. Moreover they do not, as a rule, condemn violence as such, but only violence used in defence of the western countries.

Admiration for Orwell is so widespread that simply having him on your side can grant a veneer of seriousness to your arguments. I happen to think the above quotation is mostly correct, so long as one remembers that Orwell’s central admonition is directed at a minority of pacifists, and that he was referring to a particular historical moment.

Of course, that didn’t keep some Republicans from using Orwell’s words as a cudgel against anyone who opposed Operation Enduring Freedom. If these commentators had bothered to read the entire essay, they might not have been so confident that Orwell was on their side. Rather than the endorsement the above quotation may suggest, the essay is a sustained attack on nationalism. Consider these words:

All nationalists have the power of not seeing resemblances between similar sets of facts. A British Tory will defend self-determination in Europe and oppose it in India with no feeling of inconsistency. Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits but according to who does them, and there is almost no kind of outrage – torture, the use of hostages, forced labour, mass deportations, imprisonment without trial, forgery, assassination, the bombing of civilians – which does not change its moral colour when it is committed by ‘our’ side.

Reinhold Niebuhr, who the current US President has cited as one of his favourite philosophers, echoed these sentiments in The Irony of American History seven years later:

Our unenviable position is made the more difficult because the heat of the battle gives us neither the leisure nor the inclination to detect the irony in our own history or to profit from the discovery of the double irony between ourselves and our foe. If only we could fully understand that the evils against which we contend are frequently the fruit of illusions which are similar to our own …

Not War, but Self-defense
Euphemisms like “collateral damage” and “ethnic cleansing” are now so common that they’ve lost much of their original effect, immediately bringing to mind the victims of a Predator drone assault or Janjaweed raid, the very sorts of things these terms were designed to obscure.

Like Orwell, Niebuhr was writing about a particular historical moment, but the lessons both ascertained remain relevant to this day. In any conflict, it’s worth approaching the situation from the other side’s perspective. One can vehemently oppose Iran’s nuclear ambitions while at the same time recognizing it has legitimate reasons for pursuing them. In seeking to prevent a nuclear Iran, such recognition is not a hindrance to western policy makers, but an asset. Moreover, it is the duty of citizens to question their leaders’ belligerence, and understanding the motivations of one’s enemies helps ensure that our leaders don’t recklessly march us towards unnecessary violence.

Another important aspect to understanding the perspective of one’s rivals is to approach disputes with an understanding of their broader historical contexts. It can benefit instigators on both sides of a conflict to convince their populations that war is not only inevitable, but eternal. Nineteen Eighty-Four dramatizes this point very effectively through Oceania’s shifting allegiances.

Oceania, Big Brother’s empire, is perpetually allied with one of its two rival superpowers, Eastasia and Eurasia, against the other. But exactly which power Oceania is at war with changes with alarming regularity. These shifting alliances could lead many citizens to question the necessity of war, for if supposedly mortal enemies can so quickly team up against an erstwhile ally, it’s worth wondering how deeply rooted these disputes really are.

Big Brother’s solution is, to borrow the Party’s ghoulish phrase, bringing the past up to date. “All history was a palimpsest, scraped clean and reinscribed exactly as often as was necessary.” Or as a later passage in the novel phrases it, “Oceania was at war with Eurasia; therefore Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia.”

Such lessons are of enduring relevance to our modern world. Proponents of the 2003 war in Iraq regularly focused on the brutality of Saddam Hussein’s regime, and with good reason. Saddam was so sadistic that despite his hatred of Communism, he idolized Stalin. But what war proponents rarely mentioned was that the most objectionable of Saddam’s human rights violations were committed while he was a stalwart ally of the United States.

To acknowledge this fact would have compromised the hawks’ claim that war was inevitable, while at the same time undercutting the Manichean assumptions at the root of their broader ideology. “Every war when it comes,” Orwell recognized, “is represented not as a war but as an act of self-defense against a homicidal maniac.”

Or consider President Obama’s recent address to “the Muslim world” (read the transcript of the Cairo University speech here on the White House website). It was an eloquent, thoughtful, and encouraging speech. Even Niebuhrian in its acknowledgement of similar facts and illusions. And it was roundly praised, except by the most intractable elements on both sides. I certainly don’t mean to compare neoconservatives with Al Qaeda, but the symbiotic relationship between competing belligerents is undeniable. Competing sides need not be morally equivalent to be locked in a mutually perpetuating, yet mutually destructive cycle.

None of this is meant to suggest that Orwell would have opposed the Iraq War or supported Obama’s efforts. As a general rule, one should be wary of speaking for the dead. I think there are good reasons to think Orwell would have opposed the war, particularly his loathing for colonialism, and good reasons to think he might have supported it, such as his staunch anti-Stalinism.

Whatever Orwell’s own conclusions would have been is ultimately beside the point. What’s important is that the lessons he furnishes his readers with allow them to exercise greater discernment in forming their own conclusions, to whatever end.

The Destruction of Words

In my experience, it’s commonplace among undergraduate literature students to dismiss Orwell as a poor writer. This has, I think, little to do with the sort of burgeoning Stalinism many conservatives mistakenly, though not always unreasonable, attribute to the average liberal arts undergraduate. It’s a dispute over aesthetics, not ideology. To the nascent Nabokovian, Orwell’s “windowpane” clarity, as he described it in “Why I Write,” can seem dull in its absence of formal innovation and baroque embroidery. But this misses the point.

Of course Nineteen Eighty-Four isn’t written in luminous prose. Perhaps the novel’s greatest legacy is its illustration of the corrosive effects of political language. One can find the early, though by no means inchoate, origins of these ideas in “Politics and the English Language”:

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the country side, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.

The practice of political euphemism is on full display in Nineteen Eighty-Four, with the most dramatic and memorable examples being Oceania’s four ministries: Peace, responsible for Oceania’s perpetual wars; Plenty, which rations food and goods; Truth, Big Brother’s propaganda arm; and Love, headquarters of the Thought Police and site of innumerable acts of torture.

Orwell had an acute understanding of the ways in which political thought could vulgarize language, but he also recognized that the inverse was true: “if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” It was from this recognition that the Party’s debased vernacular Newspeak, which aims to shape the parameters of political thought through “the destruction of words,” was born.

Our contemporary political culture is as polluted by euphemism as that of Orwell’s time. These euphemisms come in two varieties. There are what I would call “dead euphemisms”, which operate much in the same way as dead metaphors. “A metaphor which is technically ‘dead’,” Orwell explained, “has in effect reverted to being an ordinary word and can generally be used without loss of vividness.” Euphemisms like “collateral damage” and “ethnic cleansing” are now so common that they’ve lost much of their original effect, immediately bringing to mind the victims of a Predator drone assault or Janjaweed raid, the very sorts of things these terms were designed to obscure.

It’s worth remembering the origins of such phrases every time you come across them, but in general these dead euphemisms have been flensed of their pernicious capacity through mere repetition. However, new political euphemisms, “living euphemisms”, emerge with troubling regularity and it is against these phrases that an engaged citizenry must remain most vigilant.

The Screaming and Lies and Hatred
When rumours of a new, Tim Robbins-helmed film adaptation of Nineteen-Eighty Four spread in the summer of 2006, I joked with a friend that Robbins’ Big Brother would bear a striking physical resemblance to George W. Bush. This wasn’t a particularly funny joke, though it did speak to the absurd penchant parts of the Left had for demonizing that villainous portmanteau “Bushitler”.

Of course Bush is not Hitler, nor does he approach the closest approximation of a modern day Big Brother, Kim Jong-Il, a comparison every westerner who visits The Hermit Kingdom, from the journalist Christopher Hitchens to the cartoonist Guy Delisle, seems unable to resist. North Koreans regularly try to escape from their homeland to the comparative liberty of China. I imagine the notion that the United States is a totalitarian state would strike them as utterly absurd in its naiveté.

And yet, in the face of mounting pictorial evidence and declassified legal memos, it becomes clear that over the past eight years, the United States has been engaged in disturbingly routine brutality. Correspondingly, new euphemisms have polluted the American political vocabulary at an alarming rate. “Waterboarding”. “Enhanced Interrogation”. “Extraordinary Rendition”. The corrosive effect politics has on language is readily on display to anyone with a television, or the ability to read a newspaper.

Among the many commentators who noted the effect of such terms was William Safire, former conservative columnist for the New York Times:

Some locutions begin as bland bureaucratic euphemisms to conceal great crimes. As their meanings become clear, these collocations gain an aura of horror. In the past century, the final solution and ethnic cleansing were phrases that sent a chill through our lexicon. In this young century, the word in the news … is waterboarding. If the word torture, rooted in the Latin for ‘twist,’ means anything (and it means the deliberate infliction of excruciating physical or mental pain to punish or coerce), then waterboarding is a means of torture.

How troubling, then, that Safire’s former newspaper can rarely bring itself to call waterboarding “torture”, except when practiced by other nations. Here the wilful ignorance of similar facts combines with the destruction of words into a degradation of language that’s horrifyingly visible in real time.

Much of the Bush administration’s rush towards torture was achieved through classified legal memos. These top secret documents, many of which were recently declassified by the Obama administration, illustrate attempts to redefine basic English words in troubling detail.

Consider the so-called “Bybee Memo”, believed to have been written by Bush administration lawyers John Yoo and David Addington, and signed by Jay Bybee, a federal judge on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The memo states that for physical pain inflicted on a prisoner to constitute torture, it “must be equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.” This redefinition goes far beyond the more modest minimal standards of torture outlined in the Geneva Conventions, the Convention Against Torture, and existing American law.

Indeed, it eerily echoes the description of torture in Room 101, the Ministry of Love’s most feared torture site in Nineteen Eighty-Four. The purpose of Room 101 is to expose its victims, those individuals the Party deems guilty of thoughtcrimes, to “the worst thing in the world.” The goal is to deeply traumatize them in preparation for re-education. The cause of this trauma “varies from individual to individual.” For many it’s a gruesome death, but “there are cases where it is some quite trivial thing, not even fatal.”

“You would like to place [Abu] Zubaydah in a cramped confinement box with an insect,” reads another Bybee memo. “You have informed us that he appears to have a fear of insects. In particular, you would like to tell Zubaydah that you intend to place a stinging insect into the box with him.” For Winston Smith, the worst thing in the world is having his head encased in a mask with two hungry rats. It’s the threat of this treatment that ultimately breaks him.

These echoes shouldn’t be surprising. Not when one remembers that Orwell was fictionalizing torture practiced by the very sorts of regimes from which America’s “enhanced interrogation program” was reverse-engineered.

If these similarities to Nineteen Eighty-Four are insufficiently shocking, remember that recent reports suggest most of this torture was inflicted after detainees had already told their interrogators everything they knew. The purpose of the torture was to extract intelligence about something no prisoner could provide: the supposed operational link between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. Through the inhumanity of Room 101, they sought to create a politically beneficial ersatz history.

A Revolutionary Act

My intention is not, in my own feeble way, to pile more scorn onto an administration that already looks to be judged harshly by history. Nor do I mean to suggest that a lone American President holds a monopoly on such offences. The egregiousness of the Bush administration’s war crimes, curtailments of civil liberties, and routine mendacity provide the most potent recent examples of such (the term is unavoidable) Orwellian actions, but it is far from an exhaustive catalogue.

Consider that even a President that’s in so many ways the antithesis of George W. Bush is prone to milder forms of these offences. The Obama administration’s attempt to rechristen Bush’s War on Terror as “overseas contingency operations” would be laughable if it weren’t evidence of a broader attempt to keep much of the Bush administration’s most objectionable policies in place while making them outwardly more palatable.

Perhaps it’s naive to imagine that a citizenry intimately familiar with Orwell’s work would more readily resist its government’s lies and cruelty. I care deeply about literature and journalism, but I recognize how common it is to mistakenly invest things one values with outsized importance and efficacy. But it need not be Orwell providing these lessons. His work is simply an extremely effective conduit for these ideas, expressing them in an accessible manner, guided by piercing moral clarity.

Many of its early readers mistook Nineteen Eighty-Four for a jeremiad against Britain. It is, after all, in Orwell’s decimated homeland that the Last Man in Europe resides. In reality, for all his harsh criticism of British political culture, Orwell never mistook post-war Britain for a totalitarian state. He even had harsh words for those, generally on the British Left, who he perceived as vulgarly prone to fits of anti-British sentiment.

Nonetheless, Orwell knew that Britain was not uniquely immune to encroachments on liberty. “The scene of the book is laid in Britain,” he explained, “in order to emphasize that the English-speaking races are not innately better than anyone else and that totalitarianism, if not fought against, could triumph anywhere.”

This is the most important lesson Nineteen Eighty-Four has to offer contemporary readers. Those of us lucky enough to inhabit first-world democracies can look to North Korea or Middle Eastern dictatorships with equal parts pity and scorn, and in self-satisfied fashion convince ourselves that great nations like our own could never succumb to such illiberal barbarism. And it’s likely that even such smug self-appraisal would be proven right. For all its faults, Bush’s America remained one of the world’s best countries to live in, but acknowledgement of this fact should not be cause for complacence.

The likelihood of the United States, or Britain, or my native country Canada collapsing into a dictatorial police state is infinitesimally slight. But by keeping in mind the many lessons Orwell’s work offers, we can effectively form a bulwark against more modest encroachments, all the while recognizing the deeper, terrible truth: that for all our constitutions and codified liberties, there is ultimately nothing beyond our collective refusal to acquiesce that keeps us from approximating Winston Smith’s “victory over himself”.

Even we, even now, can be taught to love Big Brother.