? ? Novel ? George Orwell 1949- The basis and resource for this essay.
Background ? In ?1984
?, we will consider what our society and its politics might look like in the future. This is a risky but entertaining proposition.
When an author or filmmaker sets out to produce a work taking place in the future, he or she has first carefully examined the present. That present holds many (perhaps innumerable) possibilities that might or might not undergo further development in the future. The artist makes some guesses about what will or will not come to be. Usually, even the most clever writers turn out to be wrong: the society they predicted is different, perhaps radically, from the society that comes to be. But this is not the measure by which we judge a work about the future. What we value in the work, besides its entertainment, is not so much its guesswork about the future as its understanding of what is already set before us. The artist's imagination brings the present home to us by elucidating, and perhaps enlarging to its "logical conclusion," some important aspect of our lives today.
And so with the works like ?1984
?. They proceed by asking what-if questions. What if TV became even more powerful and more superficial than it is now ("Network")? What if powerful forces decided that women's equality had gotten out of control (The Handmaid's Tale)? What if censorship went to its logical conclusion ("Fahrenheit 451") or governments managed to increase their control of the way citizens think (1984
)? What if nuclear power got out of control ("China Syndrome")? Works like these ask many important what-if questions. But what gives these questions their greatest importance is that they ask us to look at the part of the future that is already here.
George Orwell's 1984
is perhaps the most influential book of political utopia (or, more accurately, negative utopia) of the twentieth century--one to which other authors have often turned for their own inspirations. Orwell was fascinated by the way modern governments maintain their power by controlling the thoughts and feelings of their citizens. These governments, Orwell perceived, give little play to what is historically true or morally right; instead, they emphasize the regime's convenience.
Orwell thus takes a theme you have encountered before and pushes it to its logical (or insane) conclusion. In his 1948 look at the future, government has managed to control its people through two types of means: (1) relatively subtle and gentle ones summarized in the term propaganda and (2) outright physical violence. By 1984
, government has advanced both propaganda and coercion to the most pervasive thought control and the routine use of torture and death.
Sometimes the book is thought to be exclusively a critique of socialist governments and thus not applicable to a "free" society like ours. Sometimes American readers scoff or feel relief that the dread date of 1984
has come and gone without a real-life dictatorship like the one described in the novel.
These readers need to think again. Isn't the U.S. Department of Defense, for example, a good candidate for a Newspeak-dictionary entry? When was the last time we "defended" ourselves? Actually, the last time anyone attacked this country's national territory was in the War of 1812, when, by the way, the defense department was the Department of War. Were the U.S.-supported Nicaraguan contras "freedom fighters" or terrorists who killed innocent men, women, and children?
Our government's use of violence is commonplace: our enslavement of Africans and genocide of native Americans are just a couple violent chapters of our history; our huge military is deployed anew an average of once a year in times of "peace." We used "Red scares" to weaken labor unions; we built internment camps for Japanese Americans; Oliver North planned roundups and detention camps for Americans who might have objected to a U.S. invasion of Nicaragua during the Reagan era.
Other means are less violent, but no less effective: elections meaning little, education molding compliant rather than questioning minds, mass media saying what the government wants said, a rampant consumerism lulling us all. . . .
Key Inclusion Element - What elements of "1984
" have you observed functioning within American society and politics?
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