Revisiting Orwell to Understand our Times

When Big Brother is really watching you.

Just two or three generations ago, most Americans understood that George Orwell’s classics Animal Farm and 1984 were written to explain how freedom is lost to totalitarianism and the intolerance that accompanies it. “Big Brother,” a term that many people still casually use to describe an all-knowing governing authority, comes right out of 1984. In the society that Orwell describes, all citizens are continually reminded that “Big Brother is watching you,” by way of a constant surveillance through the pervasive use of “telescreens” by the ruling class. 

Orwell’s warnings about totalitarianism written in novel form in Animal Farm and 1984 came shortly after Freidrich Hayek’s Road to Serfdom was published at the end of World War II. But it took the shocking revelations from books on Nazism and Soviet Communism, by scholars like William Shirer and Robert Conquest in the 1960s, to really make Orwell relevant for teaching to the masses educated in American public schools.  And it was not just an academic exercise insofar as Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev, was at that time brutally crushing all resistance, enforcing the Soviet model of totalitarian control on East European countries that became satellite states of Moscow.     

Reading Orwell, it was thought, would help American students appreciate their freedoms and gain perspective and critical faculties so as to understand socialist totalitarianism and its defining features: 1) the institutionalization of propaganda designed to warp and destroy people’s grasp on reality, and 2) the fostering of group think, conformity and collectivism designed to eliminate critical and independent thinking. By making the press subservient to the state, these two features would prevent the rise of an opposition movement or party and protect and perpetuate one party control. 

Orwell described the scope of the totalitarian enterprise, noting in one section of 1984 that “Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, and every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.”   

The concepts of “newspeak” and “doublethink” in Orwell’s 1984 are fully manifest in what we now experience as political correctness. Newspeak is the distorted reality accomplished by manipulating the meaning of language and words, while double think is the conditioned mental attitude to ignore reality and common sense and substitute and embrace a distorted or false narrative to the exclusion of other views.  As Orwell notes, “the whole aim of Newspeak and Doublethink is to narrow the range of thought.”  This is the goal of political correctness, and it explains why its adherents tend to be so intolerant—shutting down speech from the politically incorrect on college campuses across the county, demanding that historic statues and monuments associated with the Confederacy be taken down, and demanding that people with opposing views on such subjects as climate change and gay marriage be silenced, fined or arrested.

Many assume there is a long way to go before the American government has the power of Orwell’s Big Brother. After all, the thinking goes, the press in the U.S. is not controlled by the government so Americans cannot be so easily brainwashed as they theoretically would be through state-controlled propaganda. 

But what if the universities and the educational system and the major television and print media institutions embrace the groupthink that ingratiates them with the ruling elite?  What if the culture shapers in Hollywood and the advertising industry on Madison Avenue follow a similar path in participating in and reinforcing the same groupthink norms?

And what if the rise of social media, and specifically the dominant players like Facebook and Google, promote a kind of groupthink conformity that effectively marginalizes and silences opposing views? Could it then be that propaganda in a free democratic nation like America might be more effective in shaping thought and attitudes than state-controlled propaganda in totalitarian societies, which typically foster abject cynicism?  

Orwell’s concept of Big Brother watching the people has certainly become a reality in the National Security Agency’s tracking and recording all email, text and telephone communication in the United States. But Big Brother has a new dimension and counterpart now with social media and consumer giants, Google, Facebook, and Amazon knowing almost everything about people’s thoughts and preferences through their artificial intelligence peering into peoples’ “telescreen” computers and smartphones.   

As the dominant social media forum in America, Facebook is a powerful medium for narrowing the range of acceptable thought. On its site, those who openly support a politically correct view—what appears to be the popular majority view—are frequently lauded with thumbs up, while dissenters often remain silent to avoid being criticized or denounced.  All of which leads to what is called “the spiral of silence,” which reinforces the groupthink of what appears to be the social and cultural majority.

From the nation’s founding, elected and appointed officials in the U.S. government have been required to take an oath of office. Today that oath explicitly requires an allegiance “to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” Yet very few take a stand or even acknowledge that there is an internal domestic war being waged against both the Constitution and the values and institutions that have made America a great nation.  

The left is the vanguard leading this war, following a course laid out by cultural Marxists such as Antonio Gramsci and members of the Frankfurt School. Becoming influential in the 1930s and beyond, they believed the “long march through the institutions” was the best route to taking power in developed, industrialized societies such as the United States and Europe. This “march” would be a gradual process of radicalization of the cultural institutions—“the superstructure”—of bourgeois society, which would transform the values and morals of society. With historical hindsight, it seems rather obvious that as society’s morals have been softened over the last two or three generations, our political, legal and economic foundation has also became more corrupted.

One measure of the establishment’s venality is in their denial and failure to acknowledge unresolved issues and problems that violate core principles of the Constitution and threaten the nation’s economic viability. Financially, with national debt doubling in the last 9 years to over $20 trillion, and unfunded entitlement liabilities now five times greater than that, the conditions for financial collapse in the U.S. cannot be wished away.   A second measure of corruption is the establishment’s reluctance to prosecute fellow establishment law breakers in government, which has effectively created a two-tiered justice system. A third measure of establishment corruption is their accommodation of extremist anti-American groups on the left as though they have a legitimate role to play in reform and influence on policy-making—whether in taking down of historic monuments, controlling the nation’s borders, establishing police protocols in law enforcement, fighting wars overseas, or restructuring the economy at home.

Enough Americans sensed that the hour was late in November 2016 when they took a chance and voted to elect outsider Donald Trump for President, with all his faults and shortcomings. It was obvious that Trump was unlikely to be bought or compromised because of his independent wealth, but he was also cut from different cloth than politicians in many other ways. He was surprisingly transparent, and sometimes expressed himself in raw human terms. He also put substance ahead of form, connected well with working people across race and ethnicity, and was unabashedly patriotic and quite willing to speak directly and repudiate political correctness.

The hostility to the Trump Presidency by the establishment elite in both political parties, the media, the teachers’ unions and the university faculties, and Hollywood is probably a contrary indicator. It may tell us more about the real state of corruption in government, popular culture and the unremitting resilience of political correctness as the shield and sword to protect and promote the status quo and the establishment’s privileges, power and control than it does about Trump and his peccadillos. 

A society committed to maintaining freedom, prosperity and opportunity for advancement for all, needs to focus on real threats, the key one of which is the same today as it was at the time of the nation’s founding.     

One of those founders, Patrick Henry, was a gifted and passionate orator best known for his declaration, “Give me liberty or give me death.” But his most important, substantive and lasting contribution to the legacy of freedom was his tenacious and ultimately successful fight to have the Bill of Rights amended to the Constitution because of his conviction that the First Amendment and nine others were absolutely necessary to protect individual liberty against the power and abuse of centralized government.

Orwell reminds us today of the critical importance of the First Amendment, noting “if liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” Exactly what the politically correct crowd wants to preclude.

Scott Powell is senior fellow at Discovery Institute in Seattle. Reach him at [email protected]

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