Acton Institute Powerblog

Why Nineteen Eighty-Four still matters

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If so many of the catchphrases from George Orwell’s dystopian classic seem cliched today, it’s because there is endless fodder for their application. And while not everything he feared came true, Orwell’s greatness lies not in predicting the future but in changing it.

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June 8 marks the anniversary of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. That a greater gap separates us from 1984 than 1984 from Nineteen-Eighty Four’s 1949 publication staggers.

The book, at least in terms of pundits’ invoking it, seems so very 2022 even if the script dictated that its peak as a cultural touchstone would occur in 1984. And that year, scientists named an asteroid after Orwell; John Hurt (Winston Smith), Suzanna Hamilton (Julia), and in his last big-screen role Richard Burton (O’Brien) starred in a well-timed if less well-received cinematic treatment of the novel; and Ridley Scott directed a memorable commercial portraying the Apple Macintosh defying Big Brother as represented by the IBM PC. Yet the book’s relevance, like a Christmas song charting in June, strangely grew as the calendar drifted from that titular date.

One grasps the reasons for Orwell’s importance to 20th-Century Man. Christopher Hitchens, an admirer-imitator, noted in Why Orwell Matters that “the great subjects of the twentieth century were imperialism, fascism, and Stalinism.” Ignoring why Hitchens shifted from genus to species in the last example, the sentence helps explain Orwell’s pre-1984 salience. He wrote slim books about big issues. If Nineteen Eighty-Four falls vaguely under fantasy, it strikes as the furthest thing from escapist literature.

Most of the reasons why the prime of Orwell’s afterlife came after 1984 also seem obvious. The most important reason, partly because it questions Orwell’s role as a prophet and partly because it offends rather than flatters us, remains obscured by reasons both common and conspicuous.

How did this terribly fragile man endure? In terms of literary quality, George Orwell finds himself eclipsed by contemporary countrymen P.G. Wodehouse and Evelyn Waugh. But people read Orwell more and, more significantly, reference him more than the politically aloof comic novelist he defended from treason charges and the traditionalist Anglo-Catholic author he admired and met six months before his death. Yes, Jeeves became a synonym for butler and The Daily Beast became an actual publication. But few know their derivation. Even people who have never read Orwell know him by cultural osmosis.

T-shirts read “1984 Is Not an Instruction Manual.” Big Brother, now watched instead of watching, boasts versions broadcast in 62 countries over its 23-years-and-counting run. Always some ungood scribe somewhere references doublethink, unperson, joycamps, and other entrants in the Newspeak glossary. Just as namedropping Martin Heidegger represents a way for insecure highbrains to announce their status, namedropping Orwell increasingly allows overconfident dim writers to announce theirs. Orwell ranks as the anti-intellectual’s intellectual. In Plato’s theory of the soul, the consumption case ironically strikes as not the big-brained egghead or the greedy guts governed by his appetites but instead the big-chested man exuding thumos. As the success of Kurt Vonnegut, Ernest Hemingway and Jack Kerouac suggests, readers love authors who lived a story atop writing one.

His intransigent popularity stems in part from this infinite flexibility. Eric Blair became a bit like God in that we call him by various names, and his votaries quote his books for all sorts of competing and contrary ends. Consider that in just one chapter of The Road to Wigan Pier, his admirers on the left may approvingly quote his assertion that “Socialism is such elementary common sense that I am sometimes amazed that it has not established itself already,” while his conservative admirers cite the passage, “One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words ‘Socialism’ and ‘Communism’ draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist, and feminist in England.”

Brevity, the friend of most writers, helped his reputation though not him. We root for a guy who died before he could enjoy late-in-life riches, raise the child he adopted (and with the wife who shockingly died shortly after the adoption), consummate his second marriage, and benefit from the tuberculosis-defeating drugs just coming to market. He anticipated much in fiction. He arrived too late for much more in his 46 years. The tubercular man’s query to friends, “Do you think one can die if one has an unwritten book in one’s mind?,” makes him the literary equivalent of a Gale Sayers, John F. Kennedy, or Buddy Holly.

The Grim Reaper thankfully permitted him, perhaps because he wrote from a farmhouse on the remote Scottish island of Jura inhospitable to such exotic visitants, to complete the profoundly insightful novel that enabled contemporaries around the world to understand their station, in Orwell’s words, as “born, alas, in an evil time.”

Friend and journalistic colleague T.R. Fyvel noted:

Orwell in November 1948 sat feverishly—he really had fever—clean-typing Nineteen Eighty-Four, including the Appendix on Newspeak. If he really did it in less than a month, he must have typed 5,000 words a day, a considerable effort even for a perfectly fit man. For Orwell with his fever and his fast-deteriorating left lung, it was heroic but disastrous. Not surprisingly, after finishing the typescript and sending it off to Warburg in early December, he had another horrible collapse and this time, as I think he half guessed, it was critical. He was not to rise from his bed again.

Readers rightly appreciate Orwell for writing from a practical perch that eschewed abstract theory rather than uncharitably regard him as hypocrite for his part in phenomena he later denounced or, worse, an idiot for learning in the dear school of experience. Orwell spent his formative years in India and worked as a policeman who occasionally kicked his servants in Burma before writing “Shooting an Elephant,” “A Hanging,” and Burmese Days. He first slummed it and then authored Down and Out in Paris and London. The authenticity of Homage to Catalonia owes to the bullet that passed through its author-soldier’s neck. His work as a wartime propagandist in the BBC’s broadcasting bureaucracy provided an authentic color to Nineteen-Eighty Four.

He advanced truth in a time of lies. His publisher Victor Gollancz refused to print Homage to Catalonia, which sold under 600 books during Orwell’s life, and Animal Farm out of worry it might offend Joseph Stalin. On similar grounds did New Statesman editor Kingsley Martin block his articles on Spain as an exclamation point to Communists there marking Orwell for extermination. Decades later, Martin compared Orwell, who not only fought for the so-called Republicans but told the truth about the fratricide in Spain, to the chief propagandist of the Nazi Party. “I would no more have thought of publishing them than an article by Goebbels during the war against Germany,” he reflected. Peter Smollett, an agent of Stalin working for the British government’s ministry of information, persuaded Jonathan Cape to forgo publishing Animal Farm. By the time of Nineteen Eighty-Four’s 1949 release, Stalin had gobbled up Eastern Europe, and the widespread Western flirtation with the dictator had run cold. Masses and Mainstream, the successor publication to the New Masses(itself successor to The Masses), titled its review “Maggot-of-the-Month,” but by then most recognized Orwell, as they do now, as an extremely clever man who stood up to bullies.

All this does not fully explain the present fascination with Orwell, which often manifests itself in that great enemy named in “Politics and the Art of Writing”: the cliché. But we keep citing Nineteen Eighty-Four because civilization keeps making us feel like Winston Smith. That predictable staleness, then, comes not from references to a midcentury dystopian novel but from the powerful persistently seeking to impose their conformist stamp on others à la Ingsoc. When such emulation ends, perhaps social commentators will revert to citing Ignatius Donnelly’s Caesar’s Column or William Dean Howell’s A Traveler from Alturia.

Commentators earlier this spring observed that the Biden administration’s Disinformation Governance Board, now on pause and with its signing director (her feigned accent itself sounds like misinformation) resigning, took after the Ministry of Truth. “Unlike the ‘Ministry of Truth’ in George Orwell’s ‘1984’ that became a derogatory comparison point, neither the board nor [Nina] Jankowicz had any power or ability to declare what is true or false, or compel Internet providers, social media platforms or public schools to take action against certain types of speech,” assured the Washington Post. Even a number of Democrats, aware Republicans someday could populate the board, found this less than assuring and came to regard politician fact checkers as an oxymoron.

While the governance board’s return looks unlikely, Connecticut outlined a job listing for a “security analyst” to “combat election misinformation.” As the New York Times reported: “With a salary of $150,000, the person is expected to comb fringe sites like 4chan, far-right social networks like Gettr and Rumble, and mainstream social media sites to root out early misinformation narratives about voting before they go viral, and then urge the companies to remove or flag the posts that contain false information.”

No offense to the Nutmeg State, but Connecticut does not frighten like a facial cage containing hungry rats in Room 101 does. Even the federal government, despite its nuclear arsenal, wears Big Brother’s mustache uneasily here. But because Orwell depicted the state as Big Brother, his readers interpret within that framework. Nineteen Eighty-Four’s author failed to envision government as not only not the most powerful entity in every category, but not even the most powerful entity in every category under the alphabetical heading “G.”

Does Washington offer a version of 2 + 2 = 5 creepier than Google autocompleting “men can” with “get pregnant,” “lactate,” “menstruate,” and “breastfeed”? Twitter and Facebook tossing the Hunter Biden laptop story down the memory hole by censoring posts and freezing accounts during the 2020 campaign represents a more effective form of suppression than anything ever dreamt up by Anthony Comstock. And the ability of Microsoft or Amazon to snoop on our private interests surely beats that of the National Security Agency. Like the telescreen, the internet watches us.

The loudest unmentioned parallel between Nineteen Eighty-Four and our situation now involves neither Big Tech nor Big Government but a mercurial, judgmental, easily manipulated Big Public. George Orwell called it the Two Minutes Hate; we call it cancel culture. We are the Big Brother Orwell warned us about.

The sight of not Emmanuel Goldstein but Amber Heard and Johnny Depp provides America with its current Two Minutes Hate.

In five years, the United States swung from a country in which any accusation equaled guilt on he-said/she-said matters to one so tired of reputations dragged through the mud that a jury awarded $15 million in a defamation case brought by a man never specifically named in the libelous material in question. For reasons to varying degrees relating to Heard’s oblique allegations, Warner Bros. fired Depp from the Fantastic Beasts franchise, Disney announced excluding him from any future Pirates of the Caribbean installments, and Universal disappeared him from The Invisible Man. Now Amber Heard, whose popularity ranks somewhere below Yoko Ono’s among Beatles fans but above Meghan Markle’s among royalists, becomes the unperson to Hollywood.

“The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but that it was impossible to avoid joining in,” Orwell wrote.

Within thirty seconds any pretense was always unnecessary. A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge hammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one’s will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic. And yet the rage that one felt was an abstract, undirected emotion which could be switched from one object to another like the flame of a blowlamp.

Sound familiar? After Louis C.K., Will Smith, Garrison Keillor, Matt Lauer, Chrissy Teigen, and the rest, the impulse to react, like Julia did, with laughter to our Two Minutes Hate eventually overwhelms. The more disturbing concurrence between fact and fiction involves the public’s seemingly personal connection with these distant strangers, just like Winston Smith and O’Brien, and the desire to seek love and approval from the agents of Big Brotherism. We long to remain in the good graces of the cancel mob. And Big Tech need not black-bag-job their way into our private lives. We overshare pictures, TMI timestamp our whereabouts, and hashtag activities mundane and intimate. We live in an era of exhibitionists more than voyeurs.

Just as Orwell saw pneumatic tubes as the instrument of the information age instead of digital code, he failed to see other “bigs” beside Big Government becoming Big Brother. Most inhabitants of the countries comprising Oceana encounter creepy, deceitful, power-hungry governments but not ones as brutal as that found in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Alas, comparing authors to Nostradamus or even Jimmy the Greek seems unfair.

Orwell’s greatness lies not in predicting the future but in changing it. Totalitarianism, in vogue during the 1930s, became detested by midcentury. Orwell’s writing, particularly Nineteen Eighty-Four, helped reorient thinking.

Past performance does not guarantee future results. But translation into more than 60 languages and 30 million copies sold indicates a trend. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a face buried in a copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four—forever.

Daniel J. Flynn

Daniel J. Flynn, the author of Cult City: Jim Jones, Harvey Milk, and 10 Days That Shook the World, Blue Collar Intellectuals, and other books, serves as a senior editor for the American Spectator, where he writes the Spectator A.M. daily newsletter.