Cover of first British edition

June 8th marks the 60th anniversary of George Orwell’s dystopian political novel, Nineteen Eighty-four.

I’m sure there is someone somewhere who keeps track of how often a text is cited (e. g., the Declaration of Independence or—depressingly less frequently these days—the Bible). Orwell’s novel must surely rank near the top of the list—every time you hear the terms “Orwellian,” “Big Brother,” “doublethink,” “thought crime,” “thought police,” “Ministry of Truth,” or “two minutes’ hate” you’re getting allusions to 1984.

It is remarkable, moreover, how people of virtually every political persuasion—Left, Right, Center, on the Fringe—find Orwell’s terms to be a useful shorthand for what they regard as unsavory misconduct by government entities.

In other words, they invoke 1984 when they perceive a threat, real or imagined, to their freedom of action—which is a good indicator of just how successful Orwell was in sowing the seeds of distrust in governmental power.

Here are a few examples, randomly chosen, from relatively recent Internet articles.

In a piece in The New American:

In the novel, all people of the world fall under three regional governments — Oceania (where the book’s protagonist, Winston Smith, lives), Eurasia, and Eastasia. This is reminiscent of the regional approach to global governance (European Union, North American Union) now unfolding …. Oceania is continually at war, the wars never being actually won. This resembles the current war on terror, which can never be “won” since the enemy is far less definable than in traditional wars, which were fought against distinct nations, with uniformed armies, that could be forced to capitulate. In 1984, bombs sometimes drop on London (where Winston lives), rousing the people to patriotism. But Winston’s lover Julia speculates the bombs “were probably fired by the Government of Oceania itself.” This will have a familiar ring to those knowledgeable about the questionable circumstances surrounding events that have propelled America into wars, including the sinkings of the Maine and the Lusitania, Washington’s foreknowledge of the Pearl Harbor attack, the questions surrounding the Tonkin Gulf incident, and the pre-9/11 evidence that should have enabled Washington to connect the dots to prevent the worst terrorist attack on American soil.

From Accuracy in Media:

… nothing exemplifies doublethink like a proposed bill that would take away the right of a worker to cast a secret ballot in union elections. In an amazing display of Orwellian chutzpah, this bill has been labeled the “Employee Free Choice Act.” Remember the three slogans of the Inner Party in “1984”? WAR IS PEACE. FREEDOM IS SLAVERY. IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH. What is so different from the real world of 2009 where racial preferences are called “Affirmative Action,” and the concept of killing a baby in the womb is routinely referred to in your local newspaper as “Abortion Rights.” …. Today we get such lunacies as “comprehensive immigration reform” for illegal alien amnesty; the “USA Patriot Act” for a law that allowed government spying without much in the way of judicial review; and “economic justice” as the name for redistribution of wealth. Remember, it is only by reconciling contradictions that power can be maintained. Before “Atlas Shrugged,” before Alinsky’s “Rules For Radicals,” there was doublethink—a concept still practiced by our government long after 1984 has come and gone.

A website devoted to intrusive surveillance technology:

British company Ubisense has paired the remote tracking power of Radio Frequency Identification with a modern-day version of the telescreen from George Orwell’s novel 1984 …. Ubisense claims that it has developed a way to use RFID tags to track human beings and objects to within 12 inches of their locations and beam a real-time 3-dimensional map of it all to computer screens for live monitoring of offices, manufacturing facilities, and even retail stores. What’s more, the company touts that its system can be used to automatically train video cameras on selected individuals—even zoom in and out by remote control—using RFID tags people are wearing or carrying as homing beacons …. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how Ubisense could become a Big Brother Nightmare. This application provides one more reason all of us should be very concerned about RFID and its implications for privacy and civil liberties …. Today the company is trying to slip the technology into society claiming it could save lives and money by tracking medical equipment and emergency personnel, but tomorrow it could be programmed to track RFID tags that are embedded in our workplace badges, credit cards, shoes, or clothing—tags that can be followed by hidden reader devices in doorways, ceiling tiles, and shelving.

From a Christian website:

In 1949, the English writer George Orwell published 1984, a novel recognized by some as prophetic, although hardly biblical. 1984 depicts the society that Orwell envisioned as the end result of political and social forces evident in 1948 when he began writing. One aspect of 1984’s society involved the use of “Newspeak,” a truth-denying language used by bureaucracy to control the population. Recent testimony in a federal court on what is called partial birth abortion showed that Orwell’s observations contained much truth. In testimony before the court, one abortion doctor objected to terms such as “crushing the skull,” or “sucking the brain out of the skull.” “I don’t think we would use those terms … I think we would probably use a term like ‘decompression of the skull’ or reducing the contents of the skull.’” One abortionist, for example, spoke of “separating the fetal calvarium from the fetal body”—in other words, decapitating the baby that has already been delivered outside the mother’s uterus. Other terms include the word “disarticulating” for “dismembering.” Following the testimony of an abortionist explaining their choice of words, the presiding judge asked if this would, “make it nice and palatable so that they wouldn’t understand what it’s all about?” “Yes,” replied the doctor.

And a London newspaper found some irony in this:

The Big Brother nightmare of George Orwell’s 1984 has become a reality—in the shadow of the author’s former London home … It may have taken a little longer than he predicted, but Orwell’s vision of a society where cameras and computers spy on every person’s movements is now here.

The final irony, however, may lie in Orwell’s own politics, which some might find not a little alarming. He wrote:

My recent novel [Nineteen Eighty-Four] is NOT intended as an attack on Socialism or on the British Labour Party (of which I am a supporter) but as a show-up of the perversions … which have already been partly realized in Communism and Fascism …. The scene of the book is laid in Britain in order to emphasize that the English-speaking races are not innately better than anyone else and that totalitarianism, if not fought against, could triumph anywhere.

It may well be that George Orwell, self-described as a Democratic Socialist, would have hailed the election of Barack Obama as a fulfillment of his vision for a just society.

If you would like to read more about Nineteen Eighty-four, including film versions, here are a few websites:

Wikipedia’s article.

Also on Wikipedia—how Stalin used Big Brother techniques to convert a government official into an “unperson”: click here and then here.

YouTube’s trailer for the 1984 version of the film.

… and the Internet Movie Database’s entry.

Mike Gray