Earlier I told you how in the waning days of 1983 while working as the city editor of the Shreveport Journal I penned a soft feature tied to the 35th anniversary of the original publication of George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel “1984.”
Then I provided a brief sidebar about Orwell the man.
Today, we pick up that 1983 article several paragraphs down and in mid-stride with a look at how reality can be altered.
(Parenthetical comments are from 2013.)
Big Brother is watching you
Many have noted the marked likeness of Big Brother to Hitler and Stalin. The book’s rebellious Goldstein writes like Trotsky, the Communist outcast rejected and despised by his own party.
Hubert Humphreys, an assistant professor of history at LSUS since it opened in 1967, recalled how the Party members in “1984” switched their hate of one enemy to another when alliances changed. They even tore down banners they had just erected bearing the name of the wrong enemy nation. And they wondered what traitor had perpetrated such a canard.
Orwell’s main character, Winston Smith, couldn’t understand how his lover, Julia, could be so duped. “It was rather more of a shock to him,” Orwell wrote, “when he discovered from some chance remark that she did not remember that Oceania, four years ago, had been at war with Eastasia and at peace with Eurasia.”
It is just as much a shock today to teachers who learn their high school students don’t know that in World War II, the United States fought the Japanese, now our allies and suppliers of so many cars and TVs.
Humphreys found a parallel between the attitudes of the book’s characters and those of the members of the Communist Party in the ’30s and ’40s. The Communist Party in America and Europe supported the alliance of the Soviet Union with Germany prior to World War II. But when the German army attacked Russia, the party had to do a flip-flop.
“Using those Orwellian terms, the idea that one day it is one thing and then you just suddenly redefine the term and it becomes the opposite is to be found in the international political world he lived in at that time,” Humphreys said. …
(Rather like Harry Reid saying in 1990 that we have been stealing money from the Social Security recipients of this country. …” while he now says, “It’s not just an exaggeration that Social Security is headed for bankruptcy. It is an outright lie.”)
Prophecy or satire?
People can find Orwellian overtones in today’s politics and in the politics of the ’40s. So, was Orwell a satirist of the ’40s or a prophet of the ’80s?
Some, like Walter Cronkite in a foreward to the latest paperback edition of “1984,” have claimed that “1984” has failed as prophecy only because it has served so well as a warning — a warning against manipulation and power grabbing and the loss of privacy in the name of state security.
And Cronkite couldn’t resist adding: “1984 may not arrive on time, but there’s alway 1985.”
LSUS political science professor Norman Provizer says we tend to read prophecy into “1984” when it may be satire. Proviser classifies “1984” in the category of dystopia — the opposite of a utopia. The term utopia, coined by Thomas More describing an imaginary land in 1516, is a pun on the Greek words meaning “good place” — and “no place.”
Utopian and dystopian novels have long been popular — from “Plato’s Republic” to Francis Bacon’s “New Atlantis” to H.G. Wells'”Thing to Come” and B.F. Skinner’s “Walden II.” In fact, “1984” has been called a malignant version of Skinner’s more optimistic book.
Though a dystopia may be the opposite of utopia, Provizer doesn’t see it as any more likely to exist.
Orwell, according to Humphreys, probably was influenced by the political turmoil of the ’30s and ’40s. The book was published in 1949.
The was the world of the Great War and the Great Depression. A world in which the League of Nations had come apart. An even greater war had come to pass. Hitler had risen and fallen. Mussolini had done the same in Italy. Frano’s fascism ruled in Spain. Stalin held the reins of power in the Soviet Union.
But Humphreys noted that powerful bureaucracies and totalitarian government were not a new development unique to Orwell’s time. History had seen their equal in the mandarin regime of China and the Byzantine Empire.
“I guess what is different,” Humphreys said, “is the move to use technology and science … Certainly, this was the period in which Hitler was using the radio and FDR was using the radio and Mussolini did.”
(Dr. Joseph) Koshansky suspects Orwell was using satire to say: Don’t use the Soviet model of socialism, especially Stalinism.
“I think Orwell was saying, ‘Be careful of that. Be careful of the phoniness of politicians using socialism for their particular ends.’
“On the other hand you can say the same thing: Be careful of politicians using the word democracy for their own end.”
(Perhaps an example of this would be a politician misquoting someone, taking the misquote out of context, and using that to support a bill that the person quoted would have surely opposed.)
Orwell himself called his book a satire and took pains to correct those who saw it merely as a denunciation of socialism.
In a letter written shortly after the publication of the book, Orwell wrote, “My novel ‘Nineteen Eighty-four’ is not intended as an attack on socialism, or on the British Labour party, but as a show-up of the perversions to which a centralized economy is liable, and which have already been partly realized in Communism and fascism.
(Sounds like the theme a certain State of the Union speech.)
“I do not believe that the kind of society I describe will arrive, but I believe (allowing, of course, for the fact that the book is a satire) that something resembling it could arrive. I believe also that totalitarian ideas have taken root in the minds of intellectuals everywhere, and I have tried to draw these ideas out to their logical consequences. 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.”
(Perhaps to be continued.)