Film

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

From dir. Michael Radford's version of 1984 (1984)

George Orwell's seminal work, 1984, can equip its readers with the intellectual apparatus necessary to see through the routine mendacity and stupefying barrage of euphemism that plagues contemporary political life.

1984
George Orwell

Plume

May 2003

The Irony of American History
Reinhold Niebuhr

University of Chicago Press

Apr 2008

Other

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.

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