From Electric Lit:
George Orwell’s 1984 is one of those ubiquitous books that you know about just from existing in the world. It’s been referenced in everything from Apple commercials to Bowie albums, and is used across the political spectrum as shorthand for the silencing of free speech and rise of oppression. And no one seems to love referencing the text, published by George Orwell in 1949, more than the conservative far-right in America—which would be ironic if they’d actually read it or understood how close their own beliefs hew to the totalitarianism Orwell warned of.
Following last week’s insurrection at the Capitol, Josh Hawley said it was “Orwellian” for Simon & Schuster to rescind his book deal after he stoked sedition by leading a charge against the election results. Donald Trump, Jr. . . . claimed after his father was kicked off Twitter that “We are living in Orwell’s 1984,” then threw in a reference to Chairman Mao for good measure. . . . (V)oices all over Twitter lamented the “Orwellian” purge of their followers after accounts linked to the violent attack were banned from the platform. It’s enough to make an English teacher’s head spin.
I understand why Orwell’s dystopian novel is so appealing to people who want to decry authoritarianism without actually understanding what it is. It’s the same reason I relied on the text for years in my own classroom. Although we often urge our students to resist easy moralizing, the overt didacticism of 1984 has long been part of its pedagogical appeal. The good guys are good (even if they do take the last piece of chocolate from their starving sister or consider pushing their wife off a cliff that one time). The bad guys are bad. The story is linear and easy to follow; the characters are singularly-minded and voice their views in straightforward, snappy dialogue; the symbols are obvious, the kind of thing it’s easy to make a chart about or include on a short answer section of a test. (20 Points: What does the paperweight represent to Winston, and what does it mean when, after it is shattered, he thinks, “How small…how small it always was!”) Such simplicity can be helpful when presenting complicated ideas to young people who are still developing analytical and critical thinking skills. And so, like so many other teachers, I clung to Orwell’s cautionary tale for a long time as a pedagogical tool despite its literary shortcomings.
But when Trump began his rise to political power, I started to notice the dangerous inoculating quality that the text had in my own classroom. Because the dystopia of 1984 was such a simplified, exaggerated caricature, it functioned for my students not as a cautionary tale, but as a comforting kind of proof that we could never get “that bad.” I didn’t take the step to remove the text from my curriculum, but more than in previous years, I began to feel the need to charge the students to consider how things like “doublethink” and Newspeak related to our own political moment. But beyond the intellectual pleasure of the exercise itself (they were more than ready to offer examples of these methodologies across the political spectrum), most students could not bring themselves to consider that the United States could actually sink into the kind of totalitarian control that Oceania experienced. They cited our “freedoms”—speech, press, etc.—as mitigating factors. They trusted norms, even as those norms were being continually tested and broken in real time, the goalposts moving ever closer to political collapse.
Link to the rest at Electric Lit
- PG apologizes for a delayed start to his posting today. Besides blaming Covid (which neither PG nor Mrs. PG or any PG offspring have caught, but it does tend to weigh on PG’s mind nonetheless), PG had a few surprises earlier in the day that occupied way more time than they should have.
- PG reminds one and all that TPV is not a political blog and, given the toxicity of political discussions, debates, shouting contests, etc., in the US during the past few months, PG especially doesn’t want contemporary politics to intrude into the respectful, considerate and interesting environment PG and many other visitors appreciate when they click on a link that leads them here.
1984 was published in 1949, when Joseph Stalin had been ruling the Soviet Union and its people with an iron fist since he became Secretary General in 1922 and Orwell was clearly referring to something like a Stalinist society and the some of the tactics of the Communist party in a fictional context in his book.
Fortunately, regardless of which of the two major-party candidates had won the most recent presidential election in the United States, referring to either as an Orwellian or potentially-Orwellian head of state would be a gross overstatement.
Senator Hawley’s comment about Simon & Schuster acting in an “Orwellian” manner in canceling his book contract was vastly overheated. While PG is fully capable of deploring the behavior of various major and minor US publishers with a variety of insulting adjectives, “Orwellian” is not one he would use.
The author of the OP, a former English teacher turned author, also took a Hawleyesque turn in some parts of the OP insulting Republicans that PG omitted from his excerpt.
In both the Senator’s and the former English teacher’s expressed opinions, PG observed the arrogance and foolishness of those who believe their education automatically brings them common sense and perspective on almost any contemporary event.