The More Things Change: Reading 1984 in 2021
Great books are elastic; their words stretch and bend to bring their message to a new generation of readers. That pliability is what separates a best seller from a classic, and why we continue to come back to great books again and again.
George Orwell wrote 1984 in 1948, but the themes and imagery of the book have sewn themselves into our collective unconscious and appear in everything from trite reality shows to Apple computer commercials to the addition of Orwellian as a ubiquitous term in our current political lexicon. It speaks not only to Orwell’s genius but also to the cyclical nature of history that we can keep coming back to this work only to discover that its warnings ring as true today as they did at the start of the Cold War.
Sometimes the parallels between the novel and our current events are ominously prescient; what was science fiction in 1948 is commonplace in 2021. While Big Brother, the omnipresent government idol who is the face of the Party in Oceania, is the aspect of the novel that most people remember from their high school English class, the real genius of the novel is in its dissection of how those in power can warp and control the thoughts of their members. Orwell had his Party place telescreens in every citizen’s home to watch their every move; today we place our own telescreens in our pockets and take them with us wherever we go. However, like in the novel, these devices are not used to spy but to control.
At the Ministry of Truth, where Winston, the protagonist of the novel works, history is rewritten. Sometimes events are manipulated to recast the roles of participants, and sometimes events are simply erased. The goal is the empowerment of the Party. As Orwell says, “ ‘Who controls the past,’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.’ ”
We see this today in debates surrounding the distant past, as with the banning of the 1619 project, and more recent events, like the January 6th insurrection. As Kellyanne Conway stated so succinctly, we are living in a world of “alternative facts.” Truth is fungible.
The reinterpretation of history is not a partisan activity. While Democrats are clutching their pearls today about people shouting at left-leaning elected officials, it was not that long ago that they were cheering Maxine Waters’s call to shout down Republicans who dared dine in public. Those around in 2000 will also remember when the recount shoe was on the other foot and that the unofficial Florida recount efforts went on for 10 months after George W. Bush was declared the winner.
The only sanctioned emotion in 1984 is hate. The object of vitriol is far less important than the emotion itself. In 2021, we’ve increased Orwell’s Two Minutes of Hate to hours in which we spit and shout at the current target of the Party’s animosity In the novel, Winston laments, “The horrible thing about the Two Minutes of Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but, on the contrary, that it was impossible to avoid joining in.” How many times have we seen a post on social media and thought that it would be better to just scroll on by but instead find ourselves sucked into a fruitless and futile argument that generally descends into baseless name-calling in a matter of minutes?
Orwell continues: “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.” In the novel like in contemporary politics, the subject of the hate is secondary to the usefulness of the hate by the Party.
Just about any ad from our current statewide elections is reminiscent of Orwell’s Two Minutes of Hate: scary music, grainy pictures of the opposition/enemy, warnings of the destruction that will befall good people if the object of the hate is allowed to succeed. It is not enough to disagree with someone politically, we must hate them and fear them. They are not wrong for having a different political belief; they are evil and one can not compromise with evil.
Unfortunately, Orwell does not provide a blueprint for breaking the cycle of thought control that has been seen again and again throughout history, just a warning. “All beliefs, habits, tastes, emotions, mental attitudes that characterize our time are really designed to sustain the mystique of the Party and prevent the true nature of present-day society from being perceived.”
Perhaps 1984’s role is to only give us the first step: recognize that there is a problem. The rest is up to us.