It’s Closer to 1984 than It Was in 1984

The year 1984 was much the same as any other year. The Winter Olympics were held in Sarajevo, and the Summer Olympics were held in Los Angeles. In Bhopal, India, the worst industrial accident to date took the lives of thousands, and Michael Jackson’s hair caught on fire. The average price of a gallon of gasoline was an astonishing $1.21.

Something else—two related things, really—happened in 1984 that brings me closer to the point of this story. In 1984 I didn’t have a television (still don’t) and wasn’t interested in football (still not), so I missed the now-famous Superbowl ad announcing the Macintosh computer. The other event was the introduction of the Macintosh computer, which was truly revolutionary and a precursor to where we are now with information technology and communication. At the time I was clacking away on my Kaypro II, and it wouldn’t be for a few more years that I would get my first in a series of Mac computers. 

The Macintosh ad concludes with the statement: “And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like ‘1984.'” It features a woman flinging a sledgehammer through a giant telescreen on which Big Brother is haranguing brainwashed members of the Party.

George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four had never been on the assigned reading lists of any of the schools I’d gone to, and, even though I’m inclined to such stories, I’d never read the novel. But phrases like “Big Brother,” and “Thought Police,” and, “Newspeak,” and “Orwellian” were in common-enough usage to make their concepts understandable. So as 1984 approached I wondered if it would be the year that ushered in a new world order. But it came and went, much like any other year. 

I finally did read the book—finished it last week. It impressed me how many of the concepts are in force today. No, we don’t yet live in a totalitarian society, which is exactly what the book warned against. But we do live in a world controlled by unseen external forces—if not physically controlled, certainly mentally. Our government has been in the mind-control business for a long time. 

And all of us are subject to an ever-increasing barrage of political and commercial propaganda, so much so that it’s ever more difficult to discern truth from lies and whom we can trust. 

The purpose of propaganda is to influence an audience for the benefit of another group. Governments, churches, political parties, advertisers all make use of propaganda. In the novel, the Party uses heavy and constant propaganda to control people’s thoughts. All of the propaganda in 1984 is lies, but to have the thought “Big Brother is lying to me,” means almost instant arrest by the Thought Police. So it is imperative, and natural, to believe everything one is told.

We haven’t come that far yet. But we should know by now, with absolute certainty, we are  lied to. The Pentagon Papers offered ample proof that our own government lied to us about the nature of the Vietnam War. The lies getting us into war with Iraq are well documented.

More recently, this ad produced by supporters of Mitt Romney directly quotes President Obama saying, “If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose.” Obama did say that. But he was quoting John McCain, when the two campaigned against each other in 2008. This is deception at its finest. As if there is anything fine about deception.

This is the Romney camp’s response to objections to the ad, made anonymously:

“First of all, ads are propaganda by definition. We are in the persuasion business, the propaganda business…. Ads are agitprop…. Ads are about hyperbole, they are about editing. It’s ludicrous for them to say that an ad is taking something out of context…. All ads do that. They are manipulative pieces of persuasive art.”

Manipulative pieces of persuasive art. Indeed. An aspect of propaganda is that it’s repeated so many times that it becomes—rather seems to become—truth. Obama is a Muslim, right? He wasn’t born in the United States, right? Obama’s a socialist, right? 

“Balanced and Fair” is one of the slogans of Fox News Channel. But is it? I don’t have to rely on articles like this one to convince me it’s neither. I’ve seen bits of it here and there (e.g., it was on continually during a visit to a relative several years ago) to know it is neither balanced nor fair. You may argue that this article is just more propaganda from the “liberal media.” But consider what Republican writer David Frum says in a recent article published in New York Magazine Fox News and talk radio: 

Now we are all entitled to our own facts, and conservative media use this right to immerse their audience in a total environment of pseudo-facts and pretend information [emphasis mine].

Pseudo-facts and pretend information. Indeed. But it doesn’t have to be true to be effective. It just needs to be effective Millions and millions of people rely on Fox for all of their information. Unlike in 1984, no one forces them to do so. They do so, I presume, because it reinforces their beliefs. Beliefs which, it seems, are influenced by Fox News. A loopy feed-back loop of deception. But it sure gets the voters riled up.

Doublethink is another concept present in 1984. It’s the ability to hold two conflicting thoughts in mind at the same time and have no trouble with the contradiction. Doublethink serves two purposes: It renders propaganda as unquestionable truth, which in turn helps a person from committing Thoughtcrime.

The Party’s three slogans are examples of Doublespeak: WAR IS PEACE, SLAVERY IS FREEDOM, and IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH. 

Contemporary examples of Doublethink that come to mind are “pro-life,” and “liberty and justice for all.” Both of these phrases carry powerful meaning, but neither means what it says. But they are uttered with great conviction. 

There are three Party agencies in the novel. The Ministry of Plenty keeps the population at subsistence level. The Ministry of Love is where the Thought Police keep track of every Party member and punish those who commit Thoughtcrime. The Ministry of Truth is where the protagonist, Winston Smith works. His job is to rewrite past articles that appear in the London Times to make sure that current predictions and activities of Big Brother and the Party are always true, regardless of what was said and done yesterday. Part of Winston’s job is to remove “unpersons” from previous stories. Not only are those arrested by the Thought Police executed or banished to hard labor, their histories are erased. They never existed. 

We haven’t come to that, either, in this country. But we do execute lots of people, many of whom are innocent. Still more innocent people serve dozens of years in prison before they are released, if they are so lucky as to have a tireless advocates on the outside. 

And we are able to easily change the past and create false history. Anyone with a copy of Photoshop can take people out of a picture or put them in. Anyone with access to the Internet can spread whatever kind of misinformation and falsities they like. It’s always good to check the facts with Snopes.com and PolitiFact.

None of these contemporary examples, though, have a more chilling effect than that of Big Brother. The prominent fixture in the novel are the ubiquitous telescreens, through which Big Brother can watch everyone’s every move, including the most subtle body language and facial expressions. Big Brother can issue orders through the telescreen, which is also used to make announcements, play music, and provide up-to-the-minute news about the war—a war, by the way, which is not in fact happening. One cannot turn off the telescreen. 

Orwell wrote Nineteen Eight-Four  in 1948, when television technology was relatively new. But he was right on about the potential of a lack of privacy and the institutionalized ability to monitor people’s actions and whereabouts with ease. And it will get nothing but easier. Whatever you think of Wikileaks, they are responsible for exposing just how pervasive the spying technology is and how it is used. If you have a computer connected to the Internet, if you have a  smart phone, if you have a Facebook account, you are vulnerable. 

* I marvel at associations, that is, how things in life are associated and balanced, and these two events are part of that balance. About two months ago I bought an iPhone. One of the reasons, among several, was to explore the world of ebooks. The first book I read on my Apple iPhone was 1984.

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*For those of you interested in history, especially the history of Apple, or matters of copyright and infringement, you’ll enjoy this article about Apple’s use of Big Brother in its ad.

A 7-minute animation of 1984.

The Big Brother image is courtesy Wikimedia Commons. I used Photoshop to superimpose it on an image of my iPhone.