How the Historic Dystopian Novel Is Playing a Pivotal Role in Contemporary Public Debate
5/2/22 – – More than 70 years after its publication, George Orwell’s dystopian novel “1984” is appearing on best seller lists and dominating online searches. Concepts and phrases from the book, including “Ministry of Truth,” “Thought Police” and “Big Brother,” are popping up everywhere, from news analysis and political speeches to tweets and casual conversation.
Why the sudden surge of interest in all things Orwellian?
Last week, Department of Homeland Security Director Alejandro Mayorkas announced the formation of the Disinformation Governance Board. Being compared by critics to the all-controlling Ministry of Truth depicted in “1984,” the new DHS entity has been tasked with “combating misinformation,” a major threat, according to Mayorkas, to democracy.
We’ve been introduced to the board’s controversial executive director, Nina Jankowitz, a former “disinformation fellow” (that really was her title) at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She’s made her political biases and pro-censorship views clear on TikTok. But we don’t know much about the board’s structure, purview or powers. Nor have we been told what Constitutional authority allows its formation — the First Amendment’s free speech protection is a bedrock of American democracy — or given the federal government’s definitions of misinformation or disinformation.
Those questions and concerns have set off a firestorm of criticism by a broad spectrum of academic, political and media voices, rekindling interest in the lessons of “1984.”
Before I downloaded a Kindle version of “1984” last week, I hadn’t read a work by George Orwell since 10th grade. The twentieth-century English author’s two most notable novel’s, “Animal Farm” and “1984,” used to be taught in every American high school. I’m not sure that’s still true today, but with the free speech issues raised by Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter and the fears of government overreach being raised by the Disinformation Governance Board, informed citizens may want to add “1984” to their required reading list.
As we discuss in Chapter 4 of “The Crisis Preparedness Quotient,” (How Crises Typically Play Out”), powerful literary works have had profound influence on public dialogue and societal change throughout our history.
Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” published in 1852, helped shape Americans’ attitudes toward slavery leading up to the Civil War. Ralph Nader’s “Unsafe at Any Speed” (1965) triggered public outrage that forced US automakers to address the unacceptable quality and safety of domestic cars and trucks. And the release in 1906 of muckraker Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” exposed the harsh realities of immigrant life in our big cities and the disgusting conditions in America’s meat packing industry. The book is credited with assuring the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, our nation’s first serious federal legislation regulating food and drug companies.
Can “1984” take its place among these influential books?
That remains to be seen. But, I believe the resurgence of interest in Orwell’s cautionary tale is not only shaping public opinion regarding the legitimacy of the Disinformation Governance Board and Elon Musk’s retooling of Twitter, but is also adding rhetorical fuel to such hot-button political/social issues as cancel culture, parental rights in education and the purging of “hateful” words from our vocabularies. If “1984” remains at the center of public conversations, it could influence the outcome of this year’s midterm elections and the 2024 presidential race.
Orwell’s lessons are just too dark — and relevant — to ignore. In fact, it’s impossible to observe the life of the book’s main character Winston Smith without reinforcing a deep respect for free speech and fear of unchecked governmental authority.
Smith is living a terrifying existence in Orwell’s dystopian London of 1984: “You had to live – did live, from habit that became instinct – in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.” Posters with the warning “Big Brother is Watching You” are everywhere.
He works as what we today would call a “fact checker” or “content moderator” in the Records Department of The Ministry of Truth, the arm of the authoritarian government overseeing the content of all “news, entertainment, education and the fine arts.” Supporting “the Party’s” belief that “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past,” Smith and his Ministry comrades bend the truth and reframe history to align all information and thought with the nation of Oceania’s priorities.
The most despised “enemy of the state” is a traitor named Emmanuel Goldstein, who champions “freedom of speech, freedom of the Press, freedom of assembly, freedom of thought . . . He was an object of hatred.” Let the Thought Police catch you espousing or even thinking about any of these heresies (deemed dangerous “Thoughtcrimes” and hate speech) and you’ll be, again using contemporary language, cancelled:
“Your name was removed from registers, every record of everything you ever had done was wiped out, your one-time existence was denied and then forgotten. You were abolished, annihilated. VAPORIZED was the usual word.”
Language is an important focus of the Ministry of Truth. “Newspeak” is replacing English (Oldspeak) to “narrow the range of thought.” One of Smith’s colleagues boasts, “We’re destroying words – scores of them, hundreds of them, every day . . . The revolution will be complete when the language is perfect.”
And children are considered instruments of the state: “All children were to be begotten by artificial insemination (ARTSEM it was called in Newspeak) and brought up in public institutions,” where they are indoctrinated to be “watching night and day for symptoms of unorthodoxy.”
If all this creepiness is sounding uncomfortably familiar, you can understand my high expectations for “1984.”
When it comes to shaping public opinion, on the left and the right, the book — which had a brief resurgence of popularity in 2017, driven by concerns over newly-elected President Donald Trump’s perceived authoritarian tendencies — is a force to be reckoned with. It provides a compelling counter narrative to the messages of well-meaning proponents of online “content moderation,” critics of Elon Musk’s First Amendment absolutism, those pushing for language to become gender-neutral, school board members offended by parents wanting a larger role in their children’s education, and fans of the Disinformation Governance Board.
After my son and daughter read a first draft of this blog post, their thoughts went to the warnings of an author better known to younger generations. J.K. Rowling in her “Harry Potter” series created an “Office of Misinformation” within the British “Ministry of Magic,” headed for a time by a character appropriately named Cornelius Fudge. Here’s how Rowling described the condescending, message-twisting mission of the corrupt office (Note: “Muggles” are people with no magical powers):
“The Office of Misinformation will become involved in only the very worst magical-Muggle collisions. Some magical catastrophes or accidents are simply too glaringly obvious to be explained away by Muggles without the help of an outside authority. The Office of Misinformation will in such a case liaise directly with the Muggle prime minister to seek a plausible non-magical explanation for the event.”
Rowling, who often quotes passages from “1984,” boldly speaks her mind on a range of sensitive issues and is a fierce defender of free expression: “If you seek removal of freedoms from an opponent simply on the grounds that they have offended you, you have crossed the line to stand alongside tyrants who imprison, torture and kill on exactly the same justification.”
George Orwell, a disenchanted “democratic socialist,” gave us “1984” and the character of the reluctant true-believer Winston Smith to stay vigilant against the threat of totalitarianism, which in his lifetime imprisoned the populations of Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union and Communist China. Absent under those authoritarian regimes were the freedoms of speech, thought and press. Let’s hope DHS Director Mayorkas, Disinformation Governance Board Executive Director Jankowitz, all those in Congress weighing the appropriateness and scope of the new board’s authority, and members of the Washington press corps log onto Amazon.com or visit a local bookstore and order copies (digital or hard copy) of the book.
These issues merit robust, open public discussion. As for those who dismiss the relevance of “1984” to contemporary debate, I suggest you refer them to these two sentences in the book: “The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.”
UPDATE: 5/19/22 – – The DHS announced yesterday that the “work of the Disinformation Governance Board” has been “paused,” and its director, Nina Jankowicz, had resigned.