Please Stop Comparing Things to “1984”

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

18 thoughts on “Please Stop Comparing Things to “1984””

  1. While there are a lot of Orwelian parallels in these times and some echo 1984, it is not the closest cautionary tale reflecting our current reality.
    I would offer up instead ANIMAL FARM and the world of ATLAS SHRUGGED (but not its plot or philosophy) with a nod to David Weber’s ON BASILISK STATION and his antagonist world, Haven, during it’s Legislaturist phase, which very closely mirrors our times but that is because it was written in them.

    Reply
  2. Well, Sen. Hawley is incorrect when you consider that 1984 was, indeed, a mirror held up to Stalin’s dictatorship.

    The affair with his book is far more akin to the other totalitarian ideology contemporaneous with Stalin’s early regime. The one we thought we had successfully consigned to the dustbin of history.

    Reply
      • There is a difference (in process, not effect, true) between a publisher taking actions by order of the totalitarian, and taking actions to appease the totalitarian.

        S&S is appeasing the totalitarian. Not that they are one, but they join many “conservative” websites over the last few days, shutting down their comment sections. Only controlled speech is now being seen on those platforms – and they are eliminating those who dispute the narrative.

        Reply
  3. Current cultural references to Orwell’s “1984” are appropriate. Increasingly, we are subject to unfair and oppressive laws, mandates and edicts that strip away a little bit of our freedom and place more controls upon us. A totalitarian world system isn’t built in a day, it’s built slowly and insidiously, so identifying the steps along the way as “Orwellian” seems rather fitting. We don’t need the full implementation of The New World Order crowd’s “The Great Reset” to be able to see the writing on the wall – it can be identified as it is incrementally implemented, if someone has that insight. Orwell was a visionary who could see where the whole of mankind was headed. We’re there.

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  4. Let’s not forget Kipling’s Bandar Log.
    “We are great. We are free. We are wonderful. We are the most wonderful people in all the jungle! We all say so, and so it must be true. “

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  5. Yes, the transition to totalitariasm is underway all over, to different degrees.

    But there are different steps (plateaus?) between an open civil society and a 1984-style totalitarian State, ranging from intolerant regimes through repressive and Authoritarian to single party surveilance and Totalitarian states.

    Beneath that there is the range of corruption driving the slide; kleptocratic corruption, xenophobic nationalism, populism, and mob agitprop. None are immune and in most cases we see a mix of drivers operating.

    Two examples:
    PRI MEXICO, which was a single party kleptocracy for a generation and more with death squads and all, is now evolving into a Venezuelan style narco state. Driven by a mixture of nationalism and populism that kept the PRI in power for decades. In more recent times the thievery got a bit to blatant to ignore just as the drug dealers’ power has gotten too obvious to ignore, as demonstrated by tbe sordid affair of General Cienfuegos. That society is far more “advanced” down tbe road to tyrany than most western nations this side of Cuba and Venezuela, yet their fate is still in play.

    In contrast, China is well past the point of no return, checking off pretty much all the elements of Orwell’s state: surveilance regime, expansionist xenophobic nationalism, kleptocratic single party run by the military, and regularly rewriting history to fit the evolving policies of the Great Leader.

    That one is definitely an Orwellian end-state state.
    (Speaking of: https://www.newsweek.com/china-becoming-military-state-opinion-1561300)

    The rest, even Russia and Iran, to say nothing of the western societies, still have a way to go to absolute totalitarianism, hyperventilating media, community organizers, and IdiotPoliticians™ notwithstanding. None have the full combination of factors that China has but they do have active centers of dissent so they aren’t fully Orwellian.

    It may still come to pass but no, not yet.

    2021 isn’t 1984.
    But it might be 1931.

    Reply
  6. Before I launch into this rant let’s try and be clear, and attempt to agree on two things:
    1) Orwell was NOT a visionary, but rather, a very capable and able synthesist.
    2) Orwell was a radical socialist, the like of which was, and remains, largely unknown in the U.S., and now uncommon in the U.K.

    1984 was based not on a vision but on:
    a) Orwell’s, and his wife’s, his friends’, and comrades’ up-close encounters’ with Stalinism while serving in the POUM militia during the Spanish Civil War;
    b) A clear understanding of Stalin’s purges and show trials of 1934;
    c) A thorough reading of:
    (i) James Burnham’s, The Managerial Revolution;
    (ii) Yevgeny Zamyatin’s, We;
    and
    (iii) dozens of tracts, position statements, and manifestoes published by a myriad of diverse political groups; sects; charismatic moneyed individuals, and dissenters speaking out from within various political parties; (Orwell was a long-term, assiduous collector of pamphlets).
    d) Orwell’s, and his wife’s, experiences of working within a labyrinthine BBC during World War II.
    e) His experience of building a career and negotiating with editors who were under pressure to toe the line.
    f) His experience of negotiating the publication of Homage to Catalonia.

    Given many of the recent utterances of would-be Cold War warriors, and self-appointed patriots who somehow manage to shoehorn the word ‘anarchist’ into their rants while deploying the term, Orwellian — they would likely be apoplectic to learn that Orwell thought the Anarchists had it about right, and commented on several occasions that he was proud to have served among the anarchists — “I am glad,” he wrote. “ to have been among Anarchists and Poum people instead of in the International Brigade.” Orwell had many anarchist friends in London.

    It occurs that many commentators, especially in the U.S., do not seem to understand that Orwell was not an anti-communist per se, he was an anti-Stalinist and an anti-authoritarian. Many Americans might likely be shocked to learn that Orwell wasn’t agin Stalin because he was a communist, but because Stalin wasn’t communist enough. That various interpretations of Orwell’s works, Animal Farm and 1984 were co-opted by agencies working to serve U.S. foreign policy interests is, in itself, Orwellian.

    Remember, Winston Smith in 1984 was a citizen of Oceania, i.e. the West, not Eurasia, i.e. the Soviet empire.

    Reply
  7. 1) Orwell was NOT a visionary, but rather, a very capable and able synthesist.
    2) Orwell was a radical socialist, the like of which was, and remains, largely unknown in the U.S., and now uncommon in the U.K.

    1984 was based not on a vision but on:
    a) Orwell’s, and his wife’s, his friends’, and comrades’ up-close encounters with Stalinism while serving in the POUM militia during the Spanish Civil War;
    b) A clear understanding of Stalin’s purges and show trials of 1934;
    c) A thorough reading of:
    (i) James Burnham’s, The Managerial Revolution;
    (ii) Yevgeny Zamyatin’s, We;
    and
    (iii) dozens of tracts, position statements, and manifestoes published by a myriad of diverse political groups; sects; charismatic moneyed individuals, and dissenters speaking out from within various political parties; (Orwell was a long-term, assiduous collector of pamphlets).
    d) Orwell’s, and his wife’s, experiences of working within a labyrinthine BBC during World War II.
    e) His experience of building a career and negotiating with editors who were under pressure to toe the line.
    f) His experience of negotiating the publication of Homage to Catalonia.

    Given many of the recent utterances of would-be Cold War warriors, and self-appointed patriots who somehow manage to shoehorn the word ‘anarchist’ into their rants while deploying the term, Orwellian — they would likely be apoplectic to learn that Orwell thought the Anarchists had it about right, and commented on several occasions that he was proud to have served among the anarchists — “I am glad,” he wrote. “ to have been among Anarchists and Poum people instead of in the International Brigade.” Orwell had many anarchist friends in London.

    It occurs that many commentators, especially in the U.S., do not seem to understand that Orwell was not an anti-communist per se, he was an anti-Stalinist and an anti-authoritarian. Many Americans might likely be shocked to learn that Orwell wasn’t agin Stalin because he was a communist, but because Stalin wasn’t communist enough. That various interpretations of Orwell’s works, Animal Farm and 1984 were co-opted by agencies working to serve U.S. foreign policy interests is, in itself, Orwellian.

    Remember, Winston Smith in 1984 was a citizen of Oceania, i.e. the West, not Eurasia, i.e. the Soviet empire.

    Reply
    • Apoplectic? I doubt it. I suspect lots of people don’t give a hoot about what Orwell thought or why. They are picking up on tactics he described.

      Lots of people are quite happy to read a book, but don’t care anything about the author.

      Reply
    • Might it be the US hasn’t seen Orwell’s breed of anarchists because it has Libertarians (Not the party, the philosophy), which I don’t think exist elsewhere?

      They aren’t opposed to the idea of a state per se, but they believe it must be limited to the absolute minimum practical which is the polar opposite of Stalinism and statism in general.

      Reply
      • Yes, you’re correct. In an edited version of my comment which I tried but failed to post — which in part explains why there are two comments posted — I had written. “ …Orwell wasn’t agin Stalin because he was a communist, but because Stalin wasn’t communist enough, i.e. a libertarian communist.”

        Orwell was a libertarian socialist. The Independent Labour Party —of which he was member — was essentially a libertarian socialist party (until its infiltration and castration by certain Trotskyites in the 1980s, when it was reduced to a publisher and pressure group within the Labour and Co-operative Party). Its roots embraced radical Christian thinking as well as Marxist analysis and sought to unify liberal intellectuals with working-class industrial and agrarian activists. From its beginnings it placed much emphasis on the notion of individual liberty and the freedom of expression of ideas. Its members included the Pankhurst sisters, R.H. Tawney, the poet, Edwin Muir, and, one of its founders, Keir Hardie (after whom the current Leader of the Labour Opposition in the UK, Keir Starmer, is named).
        Although it did use the hammer and sickle (the symbol of Leninism, and the unity of industrial and agrarian workers) it also promoted the use of the pencil, hammer and sickle — as evinced by the symbols used, and still used today, by POUM — the ILP’s Spanish affiliate. The pencil obviously being a reference to intellectual workers and artists. The party rejected dogma, rigid beliefs and party lines, and sought to foster a notion of libertarian socialism guided by process, constant questioning, and praxis.
        For the ILP and POUM, and FAI (the Spanish Anarchist Federation), the Spanish Civil War and Revolution were inseparable. This obviously set them up for a showdown with Leninism and Stalinism which fervently advocated that any enemy could be overcome by superior central command and control, industrial discipline, and a belief that “thinking”, let alone free thinking, was a bourgeois luxury — workers had no need to think — their thinking had already been done for them — all they had to do was produce weapons, obey orders, and point their weapons at the ‘right’ targets. The ‘right’ targets obviously being anyone who questioned the infallibility of correct leadership.

        Reply
        • The last paragraph is oddly familiar.
          Just replace “bourgeois” with today’s handy-dandy adjective reserved for dissenters.
          (sigh)
          Plus la meme, etc…

          Back to American libertarianism for a moment: in the middle of the 20th, the American strain amusingly ditched its collectivist roots and broke with all other -isms, by adopting individual rights as its core principle and inverting the logic of the collectivists, concerned with the various ways states control their citizens, to focus on how citizens can control the state.

          It makes me wonder what kind of future state such a philosophy might evolve into, if allowed by the collectivists. Good story fodder.

          Reply
        • BTW, one of my favorite authors proudly proclaims himself a Trotskyite and appears to be drawing from the original collectivist philosophies, not the Marxist/Leninlist/Maoist/etc devolutions. I interpret it as being closer to the Israeli Kibbutzim version of collectivism than the totalitarian implementations.

          https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kibbutz

          Also interesting story fodder.

          Reply
    • And yet, he labeled the ideology of Oceania as “English Socialism.”

      Anyway, while Orwell was certainly no conservative, he was actually a functional human being who could recognize the virtues of his opponents and the vices of his allies (see his review of Rudyard Kipling), and he was on the right side of the actual struggle of human history, which is the one between those who want to be let to live their own lives and those who want to control other people’s lives. He would not think well of either Hawley or the writer of this article.

      Reply
  8. Once upon a time, this shark was a literary scholar studying Orwell and Huxley. In detail. Using then-unpublished/only-recently-published source documents Over There, in addition to published works, in addition to having more than a little appreciation for the benefits of a classical education (in the very-early-twentieth-century sense afforded both Orwell and Huxley).

    This shark disdains most of this discussion (including the OP) for the simple reasons that Orwell’s concerns were about all varieties of totalitarianism, not just Stalin/Stalinism; that Orwell’s published (and unpublished as of 198x) writings disdained allegory and explained why, going well beyond Homage to Catalonia and his personal experiences with POUM; that that classical education would have demonstrated the multiple layers of meanings and references; and that, perhaps most to the point, the publisher changed the title of 1984 from the author’s preferred 1948 for obvious political reasons with barely any advance notice to Orwell, who was already declining from tuberculosis and chose not to object too much (he was too busy writing the third, never-got-beyond-partial-draft book in the sequence).

    And that’s just the start of the disdain.

    Reply

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