Today is the 58th anniversary of the publication of 1984, George Orwell’s dystopian vision of a corporatized totalitarian world where “Big Brother” is always watching and where the art of “double-think” (holding two contradictory beliefs at the same time and accepting both as true) is a way of life.
It’s easy enough to point at the last six years and grouse that the Bush administration has done and is doing all they can to make this country into 1984’s Oceania – engaging us in a pointless and economy debilitating war; enabling corporations to treat both employees and consumers in egregiously manipulative, self-serving and often harmful ways; bullying, cajoling, and co-opting the media into reporting information that not only flatters the government but that misleads the public about its real intentions; and even conducting spying on citizens who use their free speech to criticize these behaviors.
How does a powerful, deeply valued idea like American democracy die, anyway? It’s hard to kill a great nation like ours with the “big bang” attack on it – even if that attack is done in a shameful, sneaky way designed to break the American spirit and engender fear like Pearl Harbor or 9/11. That kind of stuff won’t kill America – it may shock and stagger our nation for a brief time, but we get our feet under us and fight back. Americans are made of sterner stuff than any cheap mugging, no matter how egregious, could take from us….
What kills our democracy are the small injuries inflicted by petty tyrants – to cite characters from Orwell’s master work, it’s people like Charrington and O’Brien – those who subscribe to “thought police” ideas and tactics. They’re all around us, some easily identified like Bill O’Reilly, some, like local school boards or “decency committees” in small communities, inflicting the “death by a thousand cuts” upon the free flow of ideas that makes a great nation like ours the magical place that it is in world history. These little people – little in tolerance, little in outlook, little in soul – are always with us – and together they make up that “clear and present danger” we’re warned about….
A story from my youth might prove illustrative….
In the fall of 1967, just after the Summer of Love and while the strains of that now classic paean to that time, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, were still reverberating on the portable stereos of me and my friends, I was a sophomore in high school in a little Southern town not unlike the mythical Mayberry of television. I was a smart kid, and as such I was part of the “Academically Talented” English class, a small group of 20 or so kids who’d been in special classes together since 7th grade. We had a terrific teacher, Mrs. R, who pushed us to read – and more importantly, to think. (I’ve noted her teaching talents before, so I won’t belabor the point.)
Mrs. R decided that, given the cultural climate (revolution in the air that would soon erupt into that tragic and eventful year of 1968), it would be a good idea for us to read George Orwell’s classic study of the world gone wrong, 1984. She ordered the books for us through a local vendor (standard practice in those days) and we each dutifully paid our 79 cents (“such, such is life,” as Edward Lear notes) and received our copies. We dove in and found that though the political ideas were complex and fostered much discussion (thanks to Mrs. R) that the novel had a saving grace.
There were sex scenes.
The sex scenes (which actually become love scenes as the relationship between Winston and Julia deepens) are not gratuitous, they happen between two people who really care for one another but who are warped by the horrific society in which they live, and they are brief. But for 15 year olds plowing through a “novel of ideas” like 1984, they were exotic, exciting and exhilarating. Since Mrs. R only mentioned them in the vaguest terms and then only as part of her discussion of Julia and Winston’s rebellion against Big Brother, naturally my classmates and I talked about them among ourselves. The boys did so with adolescent locker room raucousness before and after school, at lunch, and during breaks between classes, especially after 1st period English. The girls were more circumspect – they whispered and, I suspect, talked on the phone at night.
In fact, according to my somewhat spotty memory, that’s how the parents of a couple of the girls learned we were reading a “smutty” book….
These parents soon notified the parents of other girls. They also, as good self-righteous citizens as well as (I suspect) Southern Baptists are wont to do in a small Southern town, contacted their pastors who promptly formed a “decency committee” and visited the principal, Mr. N. (I have a great fondness for Mr. N. He was a smart guy [unusual for high school principals, most of whom come from the ranks of failed coaches] and he and I had an interesting relationship through my high school career. But I digress….)
In a move that I still find shocking to remember, Mr. N caved to the committee. When we showed up for our first period English class one morning about 60% of the way through 1984, Mr. N was waiting for us with a box. He called for us to pass our copies of the book forward. We peppered him with questions which he brushed aside. A couple of us protested but were silenced by the threat of indefinite detention; then, when we continued to complain about the injustice of the taking our books with no explanation, Mr. N acted unjustly for the only time in my long acquaintance with him – he told us that the next student who spoke up would be suspended indefinitely.
He passed by the head of each row, took the stacks of books, put them into his box, and carried them from the room. We sat in silence for awhile, stunned by this sudden imposition of the very kind of tactics Orwell had been describing for us.
Mrs. R was nowhere to be found during this debacle. She came to class perhaps 15 minutes later, visibly shaken, her eyes red from crying, and proceeded to try to teach us a lesson about – something or other. I don’t remember and I don’t really think anyone else from the class would either if you asked them.
No more was said about 1984 for at least a couple of weeks. We dove into our literature textbook and began reading short fiction. Finally, one day on the way to lunch, a couple of friends and I ran into Mr. N. He nodded in our direction and then said, as sort of an afterthought, “Sorry I had to take your books, boys.”
He had turned to go when I called after him, “You owe me 79 cents, Mr. N.”
My friends froze for a second, then backed slowly away from me – out of the line of fire I suppose.
Mr. N turned back and gave me the stare – one of his most threatening weapons.
I stared right back.
He sighed (another favorite tactic) and said quietly, “You’ll understand some day.”
I’d like to say I retorted, “No, I won’t.” But I didn’t. I said nothing and Mr. N walked away feeling he’d explained as clearly as he could given the circumstances. The machinations of small town education politics being as they were (and largely still are) the stuff of back rooms and off the record chats, I guess Mr. N thought no more need be said. Our right to read what our teacher thought was important was violated, George Orwell’s right to free speech was violated, and Mr. N’s sense of what a true liberal education should be was violated – all to placate a group of pompous prudes intent on imposing their narrow-minded morality on us as “protection” of our “innocent” minds.
My only act of defiance was to go get myself a copy of 1984 and read it. I’ve re-read it several times since. It resonates, like all great literature, across the decades….
This happened 40 years ago – it’s happened plenty of times since – every time a school board chooses to ban books because they violate their own narrow views of what should be taught – every time the government abuses its power to silence a high school rock band who wants to play “Masters of War,” Dylan’s protest masterpiece – every time a political candidate self-censors to placate some group of praying and/or braying bigots – every time the media devotes time to coverage of “celeb-reportage” rather than providing us with real information about what our government is doing and why it’s doing it – every time this happens, more cuts are made on the body democratic.
And we move closer to Orwell’s dystopia where
- WAR IS PEACE
- FREEDOM IS SLAVERY
- IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH
Read 1984. Share it with friends and discuss it. When your children are old enough, have them read it and discuss it with them. Encourage them to do the same with their children.
Heal some of those cuts.
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