This week I read George Orwell’s 1984. Published in 1949, the close of WWII was less than four years prior. Unimaginable horrors were replete: Hitler and the Third Reich; Nazis; the slaughter of 6,000,000 Jews; President Truman’s authorizing the dropping of atomic bombs upon Japan four years after Pearl Harbor, Hawaii was attacked by Japanese kamikazes; Mussolini’s fellow fascists in Italy; Franco’s fellow fascists in Spain; Lenin and later Stalin in the USSR; Mao in China … the list of totalitarian/socialist/communist tyrants in the 20th century alone staggers the mind. And Orwell’s 1984 still retains cogent warnings.
Published in the middle of the 20th century, 1984 imaginatively concretizes the horrors of tyranny, big government, and totalitarianism/socialism/communism by focusing on an ordinary man (Winston Smith).
How will Winston (a type of Everyman) endure when oligarchy replaces republicanism? Can the human soul endure when God is jettisoned and secular power replaces him? And what of beauty? Is literature possible in a world when bureaucrats determine the curricula? Will Shakespeare and Dickens survive in 1984’s world of Telescreens and Newspeak? Short answer: no.
Governments don’t stir the soul; reading Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, however, does. When the media are merely arms of the government, and the masses (what Orwell terms the “proles” for proletariat) know only what government wants them to know, wisdom goes underground. And so do truth, goodness, and beauty.
The terms Orwell coined in 1984 endure. Big Brother, Thought Police, and Newspeak are just some of the examples. If you control the language, you control the message. And today, look at college and university campuses where Leftists demand “safe spaces,” and being called by pronouns that are in contradiction to their gender. Professing themselves to be wise, they’re fools. And it is shameful.
These examples from our day illustrate what happens when a culture abandons God, abandons reason, and abandons self-discipline. Orwell’s 1984 is still important.
First, are you paying attention to phrases en vogue today? Ever heard the phrase “safe spaces”? A couple of years ago, I was at military training with my unit and a female officer asked me if I would step out of the auditorium because she wished to speak to only female soldiers. That seemed understandable to me. But what caught my attention was when she said, “We are creating a safe space.” Huh? A space is now safe when any and all potentially dissenting views are prohibited. Verboten. Forbidden. Not tolerated. What is demanded is conformity.
Second, there is a loud and mean push in contemporary politics and discourse that demands—instead of reasons. Leftists demand a Christian baker, for example, go against his deeply held religious beliefs. If he won’t, they smear him as a bigoted moral monster. If he won’t contradict biblical morality, they set out to destroy him. So much for their so-called tolerance. In 1984, the individual is crushed by Big Brother and oligarchy. Power is stolen from the individual and reserved only for the all-powerful State. If the individual dissents, he/she is crushed via torture and/or indoctrination.
Third, Orwell dramatizes in 1984 what happens when people don’t know history. What they know is what the media have force-fed them. Instead of wisdom with regard to historical understanding, they have platitudes and bromides: WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY, and IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH, for example. Clichés are not arguments; assertions are not arguments; platitudes are not arguments. But if the masses only parrot the media they ingest, shibboleths and slogans are what we get.
In 1984, a novel now 70 years old, I encountered a warning we should heed. We are drowning in information rather than standing upon wisdom.
We would do well to read deeply, to think through Orwell’s warnings from decades ago. We would do well to actually know and understand history. We might discover how we got to such a sorry place with regard to our conversations with one another. We might rediscover that masterpieces like Romeo and Juliet, David Copperfield, and 1984 were not produced by bureaucrats or governmental committees.