Monday, November 29, 2004

Was Orwell Right? Is War Now Peace?

With these slogans, George Orwell's NINETEEN EIGHTY FOUR burst upon the literary world as the definitive anti-utopian novel for the second half of the 20th Century.

Published in 1949, this darkly cautionary and prescient vision of the near future was a warning against the dangers of a totalitarian government fueled by high technology. Orwell envisions a world devastated by nuclear war and poverty, where the West has fallen under the spell of a totalitarian socialist dictator, Big Brother. A political demagogue and religious cult leader all rolled into one, Big Brother's power and mystery are so immense that one may wonder if he even exists at all.

Big Brother's Ingsoc Party (English Socialism) has perfected the uses of high technology to monitor the lives of its populace, and to insure unswerving loyalty through surveillance, propaganda and brainwashing. The government's most brilliant and most appalling project is the actual deconstruction of the English language into Newspeak, the language of the Party. Each successive edition of the Newspeak Dictionary has fewer words than its predecessor. By removing meaning and nuance from the vocabulary, the government hopes to eradicate seditious and anti-social thinking before it even has the chance to enter a person's mind. Without the vocabulary for revolution, there can be no revolution. For those who persist in thinking for themselves, so-called Thought Criminals, Ingsoc's stormtroopers, the Thought Police, are there to intervene, incarcerating the free-thinkers in the Ministry of Love, where they will be re-educated, or worse.

The most intrusive daily aspect of life in Oceania (as Orwell calls the European/American mega-State) are the omnipresent telescreens, two-way interactive televisions that cannot be turned off, and which give the government a faceless surveillance window into everyone's life. Who is on the other side of the telescreens? Are people watching? Is all the monitoring done by machine? All we learn is that members of the Inner Party, the elite, are allowed to turn off their telescreens, if only for a brief period.

Winston Smith, the protagonist of Orwell's novel, becomes a Thought Criminal. A minor bureaucrat (an "Outer Party" member) his job is to actually rewrite the archives of the London Times so that they are consistent with current Ingsoc policy. When Ingsoc changes its political alliance with another superpower and begins waging war on a former ally, Winston's job is to rewrite all the prior information to show that the old alliance never existed. So addled are the minds of the people he meets that they don't even realize that these changes have been made. A sad, lonely man, Winston is also smart enough to understand the insidious manipulation being perpetrated on the society.

And so he becomes a willing victim of the government's most ingenious ruse: Winston obtains a copy of a banned revolutionary tract by the famous enemy of the State, Goldstein. Galvanized and inspired by what he reads, he pursues an illicit love affair with a co-worker,Julia, and seems to find an ally in the person of Inner Party official O'Brien. Longing for an escape from this terrible world to a better life, he does not realize that everything has been a set-up. Kindly O'Brien is actually the head of the Thought Police, and it is he who has actually written Goldstein's book for the very purpose of luring potential revolutionaries out of the closet and into the dreaded Room 101 - a torture chamber where one's worst fears are made real. Totally broken, brainwashed and reprogrammed (so suggestible that he is even made to agree that 2+2=5), Winston is returned to society as another harmless devoté of Big Brother. In the chilling final pages of the book, Winston, tears of fear and joy streaming down his face, proclaims his love of Big Brother, all thoughts, hopes or dreams of escape and freedom permanently eradicated from his consciousness.


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