George Orwell's 1984 And Contemporary American Politics And Society
Orwell's novel, entitled 1984, is essentially a fictional projection of possibilities and "what if" scenarios. While it is classified as a work of fiction, the foundations of 1984 stem from the author's personal experiences and insights into the way governments and political groups manipulate and even construct the truth to suit their own ends in an effort to gain and maintain power. Due to his experiences in the Spanish Civil War, Orwell became aware that often media reports were mere fabrications of the truth and not an accurate reflection of reality. This made him skeptical about reportage in the media and information from official government sources. The future scenario that the book suggests is in fact based on an understanding of human nature, and what Orwell saw as the trajectory that power structures in the world were taking.
There are many aspects of the Orwellian world of Big Brother which has a resonance in the contemporary world and in American politics. The issue of Newspeak and the manipulation and control of thought, while not as blatantly obvious as in the novel, is nevertheless an endemic part of contemporary society. Today we observe the pervasiveness of the media in every aspect of our lives which suggests that those who determine the content and presentation of the media are also capable of controlling and manipulating perceptions of the world and the way public opinion is shaped. This aspect and other ways in which Orwell's 1984 relates to modern American society will be considered in this paper.
The central theme of Orwell's book is power and control and the loss of human individualism and freedom. Big Brother is the all pervasive observer that insinuates the State and Party into every aspect of life. The novel explores what happens when the desire for power and control is taken to its logical conclusion -- where individualism no longer exists and personal identity is but a forgotten dream. This insight is derived from Orwell's observations that true political power in the modern world lies in the total domination and control of the individual psyche, so that there can be no rebellion or questioning. This concept is played out against the attempts of Smith to assert some last sense of individuality in the face of relentless deprivation of self and desire from Big Brother.
While the story is fictional there are numerous areas and themes that seem to have an all too familiar correspondence with modern life and with the contemporary history of American politics. American history is saturated with evidence that points to the need for power and control. This can be seen in the way in which the Native American Indians were abused and their culture virtually annihilated under the rubric of advancement and progress.
A more contemporary example, which is aligned to the subtle manipulation of the media for purposes of public manipulation through the use of the words like 'terror' and 'terrorism' which is, we could say, part of the real world Newspeak vocabulary.
The word terrorist has become to mean more than just an expression denoting a certain type of crime; the word has become a blanket term for all enemies of the State and those in power. Similarly, in 1984, Goldstein stands for all that is evil and that which is opposed to good. There is no discussion and no complexity -- the danger that many pundits see in these emotive terms is that they may be used and manipulated by those in authority to vilify anyone who might not suit their ends.
The corruption of language described in 1984 is widespread in the media today, with "Newspeak" terms such as democratic, socialist, fascist, war criminal, freedom fighter, racist and many other expressions being used in a deliberately deceptive, propagandistic way to whip up mass hysteria or simply to ensure that people can never achieve even an approximation of the truth.
Another aspect of the book that resonates in modern society is the use of surveillance and control mechanisms that can be implemented under the guise of 'security'. The continuing efforts of the American government and agencies to increase the surveillance and control of information and data are reminiscent of many aspects of Big Brother. This has of course been accelerated and enhanced by computer technology and the Internet.
Many of the predictions made by George Orwell in his book 1984 in relation to 'Big Brother' surveillance, corruption of language and control of history have already come about ... The powers of security police in Western countries that intercept mail and tap phones have often been extended; police agencies keep numerous files on law-abiding citizens, and more and more public officials have the right to enter private homes without a warrant. Many government departments keep computerized information on citizens and there is a danger that this information will be fed into a centralized data bank.
There are many journalists and critics who regard the increase in monitoring and other intrusive technologies as an advance on the road to totalitarianism. " ... The cumulative effect of such Big Brother activities is to make countries such as the United States, Britain and Australia increasingly totalitarian societies. " (ibid)
Another aspect of American society that has been fostered by the media is the concept of the 'relativity of truth'. The idea that there is no truth but only relative truths is a concept that has been generally accepted by society at large. We no longer expect the 'real' truth but opt rather to compromise the facts with an estimate or an approximation of the truth. This is exactly what Orwell wrote about in his assessment that the corruption of the concept of objective truth opens the way for manipulation and the totalitarian control of power. Orwell wrote that
... indifference to objective truth is encouraged by the sealing off of one part of the world from another, which makes it harder and harder to discover what is actually happening. There can often be doubt about the most enormous events ... The calamities that are constantly being reported -- battles, massacres, famines, revolutions -- which tend to inspire in the average person a feeling of unreality. One has no way of verifying the facts; one is not even fully certain that they have happened, and one is always presented with totally different interpretations from different sources. Probably the truth is undiscoverable but the facts will be so dishonestly set forth that the ordinary reader can be forgiven either for swallowing lies or for failing to form an opinion ... (ibid. From Notes on Nationalism. )
This indifference to objectivity and certainty encourages an acceptance of various interpretations of reality, making it easier to accept the version promulgated as 'the truth'. This aspect can be seen in American politics; for example, in the case of the 'weapons of mass destruction' where there is no certainty but an acceptance of an unproven 'truth'. Numerous critics have pointed out that the manipulation of reality and truth seems to be a central aim of the present American government. For example, a senior government advisor recently stated that America no longer existed as a 'reality-based community'. He stated: "That's not the way the world works anymore. We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality." (Greenberg J. 2004)
It is therefore close to the themes of 1984 that, according to polls, 72% of supporters of the Bush administration still believe that WMD existed in Iraq. This poll was taken after extensive reports and findings, which stated that there was no evidence to suggest the presence of WMD's in Iraq. It is this sort of selective truth and the suppression of critical thinking that Orwell considered to be so dangerous in 1984.
There are many aspects of American society and life today that follow the general trajectory of Orwell's projections. One of the closest and most disconcerting parallels is the idea that 'war is peace'. This is described in the novel as a 'continuous state of war' which benefits those in power and enables them to maintain total control over the people.
... It eats up the surplus of consumable goods, and it helps to preserve the special mental atmosphere that a hierarchical society needs. War, it will be seen, is now a purely internal affair. In the past, the ruling groups of all countries, although they might recognize their common interest and therefore limit the destructiveness of war, did fight against one another, and the victor always plundered the vanquished. In our day they are not fighting against one another at all. The war is waged by each ruling group against its own subjects, and the object of the war is not to make or prevent conquests of territory, but to keep the structure of society intact. The very word 'war' has therefore become misleading. It would probably be accurate to say that by…