I wonder if Orwell would have been ashamed or conceited. My bet would be on the former, though I’d like to imagine him residing somewhere between the two. If there is evidence of the prophetic to be found in the written word, surely it is from George Orwell’s political fiction classic Nineteen Eighty-Four (or 1984). The insight displayed by Orwell seems uncanny, until you realize that history tends to repeat itself. His opening line “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen” indicate that something about his dystopian future is bleak and somehow different than the life he knew.
Our own march towards dystopia has been gradual but obvious. We ask ourselves how it has come to this, all the while holding the answer somewhere in the back of our minds. We, both left and right, have slowly permitted the government to sneak up on our liberties and take a little bit at a time. We have all heard of the frog who was boiled to death because the cool water was heated too slowly to have been noticed. The political climate has been slowly increasing, but our complacency has prevented us from jumping out. Consumerism has provided an addiction to convenience which you and I are unwilling to part with. We text our friends about upcoming events while we microwave our frozen meals. We turn on 10 second recaps rather than suffer through an entire debate. We have neither the time nor the patience for dull or exhaustive things, even if our meals are more bland, politics ignored and friends’ faces forgotten. Rather than resisting overstepped boundaries by our government, we submit to its authority. If you think I am being at all facetious, and that complacency is no danger at all, allow me to summarize for you the setting of Orwell’s 1984.
Orwell creates a tyrannical political party called Ingsoc who manipulate all forms of recorded history. This form of propaganda is used to maintain support for the party and is enforced by one of four ministers: the Minister of Truth. The ministers are also responsible to maintain the shroud of secrecy which veils government actions. The country, called Oceania, is also engaged in perpetual warfare. The Ingsoc party utilizes mass surveillance to ensure obedience of its citizens and to discourage rebellion. Devices called ‘telescreens’ are installed in every home and workplace. They allow the government to record every action taken by every person anywhere in the country. Who, in 1949, would have envisioned the government’s ability to so robustly spy on its own citizens? George Orwell apparently. The CIA and NSA have operated in the shadows to collect personal data on the citizens whose rights they were formed to protect. Even after whistleblowers who could no longer remain silent have shed the light of transparency on their action, they continue to operate. Orwell may as well have chosen to call telescreens ‘laptopscreens’ instead.
Another trait common among dystopian authoritative states is political suppression. Today, in the USA at least, 48 states have limited voting rights for felons. In the 2012 election this thwarted the votes of some 5 million individuals. This, along with other political strategies (gerrymandering, Jim Crow laws, voter ID, etc.) allows the governments to suppress votes. Political suppression is not something new to the political sphere. Governments for centuries have relied on various methods to limit votes to maintain support—or at least for the appearance thereof.
In the novel, a cult of personality surrounds Ingsoc’s leader, Big Brother. He is most likely a symbolic figurehead who doesn’t really exists. What words could better describe Donald Trump’s rise to power than a cult of personality? He has created a powerful persona for himself through the use of mass media, propaganda and self-flattery of the highest degree. What’s more, can Donald Trump be anything more than a symbolic figurehead? Is he capable of complex geopolitical negotiations and macroeconomic planning himself? I think the individuals with which Trump has already filled his administration suggests not. The similarities between our reality and the one created by Orwell does not end here.
Oceania uses thought police to punish what they call a thoughtcrime. A thoughtcrime is simply an illegal idea which often takes the form of either disbelief or a rejection of social principle. Are today’s PC police much different? Is there any other way to describe Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the anthem than as a thoughtcrime? Ingsoc uses telescreens to ensure that thoughtcrimes are not committed and remind its subject of this fact constantly. Its slogan rings eerily familiar: “Big brother is watching.” It seems that we have a big brother of our own today.
Voters have only themselves to blame. Complacency has made us reluctant to fight back against imposing leaps made by our governments. It takes only a small shift in perception to go from “Is the government watching?” to “The government is watching!” Perhaps Trump was a pushback against establishment politics. I tend to doubt it. If he continues to appoint establishment politicians to his administration, then he will have been no force for change at all. He will only have been an empty suit who allows right wingers to lie to themselves and to convince themselves that their votes had made a difference. Only time will tell. One thing everyone will agree on: the clocks will be striking thirteen on the day Trump is sworn in.