The Lessons of 1984


Will Truman

Will Truman is the Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. He is also on Twitter.

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33 Responses

  1. Avatar Katherine says:

    Is this in reference to anything in particular?

    I do agree regarding misuse of Orwell.  One of the major useful things to take away from it to be wary of any political language that obscures rather than illuminates – which, today, is almost all political language.  That doesn’t imply that we’re headed towards the world of 1984 – the purpose of the book is not prediction, but highlighting the nastier and more dangerous aspects of government (by any party) so that we can recognize and combat them.

    Personally, though, I think Brave New World has a lot more so say about the state of the Western world today than 1984 does.Report

    • Avatar Will Truman says:


      It’s a valuable book. It’s just often used the wrong way. Namely, in the way that all of the bad stuff is frighteningly similar to what one’s political opponents are doing. Whomever one’s opponents happen to be.Report

      • Avatar wardsmith says:

        Some funny things about this post. First is that only recently I started re-reading 1984 (the first time I was in the 6th grade, my mom still has my book report on it). I’d forgotten about the “sex” ala Kyle’s post below and as I saw from the teacher’s comments, it created a bit of a dust up in my Catholic Jr. High when I read it (on my own of course, I think one of my older brothers had it for a college course). The second is that at one time ala Burt’s OP, I’d considered Eric Blair as my pseudonym. Ala Will T. it is clearly about the “party” in power vs the one not in power. The whole business of constant war with the Eastasians and Eurasians (one at a time of course, trilateral balance and all) is of course calculated to keep the “proles” in line and fearful, ever fearful.

        The newspeak, doublespeak, Ministry of Love and so on could be right out of Alinsky’s books.Report

        • Avatar Kenneth says:

          You really must be joking. Alinsky? If you want someone who is a master at implementing 1984, you need to look at Karl Rove.

          Things that resemble 1984 the most that I can think of recently:

          – Framing a movement about restricting womens’ rights to contraception, reproductive health care and safety, as “Pro-Life.” Including the creation of state-sponsored “slut shaming” bills of various sorts, up to and including the state-sponsored sonogram rape bills and the North Dakota “we won’t ban it, we’ll just make it fishing impossible to schedule” bill.

          – The drumbeat of the right wing, trying to turn the word “liberal” into an epithet.

          – The creation of the GOP’s “alternate facts” machine as exposed by David Frum:

          “But the thought leaders on talk radio and Fox do more than shape opinion. Backed by their own wing of the book-publishing industry and supported by think tanks that increasingly function as public-relations agencies, conservatives have built a whole alternative knowledge system, with its own facts, its own history, its own laws of economics. Outside this alternative reality, the United States is a country dominated by a strong Christian religiosity. Within it, Christians are a persecuted minority. Outside the system, President Obama—whatever his policy ­errors—is a figure of imposing intellect and dignity. Within the system, he’s a pitiful nothing, unable to speak without a teleprompter, an affirmative-action phony doomed to inevitable defeat. Outside the system, social scientists worry that the U.S. is hardening into one of the most rigid class societies in the Western world, in which the children of the poor have less chance of escape than in France, Germany, or even England. Inside the system, the U.S. remains (to borrow the words of Senator Marco Rubio) “the only place in the world where it doesn’t matter who your parents were or where you came from.”

          We used to say “You’re entitled to your own opinion, but not to your own facts.” 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.”

          The right wing likes to harp on the “lame-stream media” and scream about “liberal this” and “liberal that.” But the reality is, the GOP has created a completely functional echo chamber, and their devotees never hear from the other side because whenever someone DOES mention how wack-job the stuff coming out of their mouth, the standard GOP procedure is one of two options: either fly off the handle sputtering and angrily tirading until the other side shuts up, or pull a TVD.Report

          • Avatar Kenneth says:

            Also, I invite you to watch this great bit by Bill Maher.

            Mentioning “Saul Alinsky” is a right wing dog whistle tactic, nothing more and certainly nothing relevant.Report

          • Avatar Will Truman says:

            There’s really no question that [my political opponents] are EngSoc.


            • Avatar Kenneth says:

              On the one hand, I provided evidence, including the writings of a noted conservative thinker discussing how the right wing are doing PRECISELY the sort of “Minitrue” things laid out in 1984.

              On the other, you responded with a flip comment devoid of conversational value.

              The problem is, mentioning “1984” and accusing “the other side” of misconstruing it to mean “your side” is an article of faith on the right wing. The right wing cheerfully enjoys creating the tracking of citizens (FBI warrantless wiretap and GPS programs, various “think of the children” online tracking bills, various “counterterrorism profiling” programs). They cheerfully enjoy rewriting history to try to make it match the latest pronouncements of the idiots they champion.

              In their minds, Ronald Reagan was a great tax-cutter who was all about destroying government and “untiring conservatism”, and a day doesn’t go by when one of those brainless boobs raises the call of “we need Reaganism again” on the radio (usually that brainless Lewis Prothero lookalike Glenn Beck, or else Hannity or Rush).

              The reality is far more modest.  Reagan supported trade unions as a force AGAINST communism, he was willing to raise taxes to forestall major government budget deficits, he worked out an amnesty bill to try to deal with the problem of illegal immigration, he talked about “abortion” but never so much as proposed a single bill on the matter. Instead of eliminating cabinet-level positions and departments from government, he created one – the Dept of Veterans Affairs. He increased the number of federal employees by over 60,000 – it took the Clinton administration to decrease the number of federal employees, and they did it by over 370,000.

              So when I point out actual facts, demonstrating HOW the right wing mirror the Orwellian nightmare, don’t just come back with a flip answer. Show some intelligence and give back some honest debate.Report

              • Avatar Will Truman says:

                I find your “evidence” for the notion that the right mirrors an Orwellian nightmare less convincing than you do.

                I will let you and Wardsmith duke it out over which side is *really* Orwellian in nature.

                I am just pointing to the notion that “the other side is TOTALLY Orwellian” and the use of Orwell for partisan points is ubiquitous, and lo and behold, I get two comments arguing that the other side is Orwellian.Report

              • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

                Which begs the question:

                Happy satisfaction of a post that “called it,” or sad resignation that your post wasn’t that far off?Report

      • Avatar Murali says:

        Orwell was far nastier than  you think. He was a polemicist and delighted in making cheap political points and caricatures of his opponents.Report

        • I’ve read quite a bit of Orwell, and I really don’t see this.  It seems to me he goes out of his way to criticize his friends and allies on the left while acknowledging what he saw as the good points his opponents make.  I’ll grant that he occasionally indulges in hyperbole–and that at first turned me off to him, when I read his essay on “nationalisms”–but aside from that, I find him a very honest writer.

          It’s possible you might be thinking of something I either haven’t read or didn’t notice when I did, so if you have counter-evidence, I’ll be much obliged to see it.Report

          • Avatar Murali says:

            Read his “England your England” or  even “Shopkeepers at war” or “The English revolution”

            All 3 would have started flamewars in this blog.Report

            • Of those, I think I’ve read only “England Your England.”  I agree it–or a comparable “America Your America” would have started rather robust conversation at this blog, but I don’t see it as a particularly polemic- or caricature-prone book.  Again, if you have specific examples, I’d appreciate it.

              I hope I’m not coming off as confrontational.  I realize I myself haven’t offered anything specific beyond my assertion that I just don’t see the polemicism and cheap shots.Report

              • Avatar wardsmith says:

                Maybe Murali is thinking of when Blair wrote for Polemic Magazine?

                I’d have to say compared to others of his generation the style was no more nor less polemic, it was just par for the course. Even now, Americans are somewhat mystified when they (rarely admittedly) hear how things are done in Parliament in England. That rough-and-tumble makes our Congress look positively tame by comparison.Report

  2. Avatar Kyle Cupp says:

    I thought the primary lesson was don’t be sexually repressed.Report

  3. Avatar Tod Kelly says:

    I thought the horror of 1984 was Boston beating LA.Report

  4. Avatar greginak says:

    I remember 1984, the year that is. People talked about the book a ton. There was this weird, clueless smugness that since we weren’t living in Orwell’s dystopia somehow we had achieved something. Once the year passed we were now safe.

    I’ll note Pat C’s leaving his edited post up after he found otu he was wrong about the Virginia ultrasound law. No memory hole there. Good for him. I’ll then note that Politico recently clusterfucked regarding a pic of Obama in front of the Wisconsin state flag. They thought it was a union flag and said O was favoring unions or some such thing. That post has been removed. Hello memory hole.

    Its true people invoke Orwell to often but that is partially because his ideas are so useful. Its also nice to see people still caring about and reading a good old left winger.Report

    • Avatar Will Truman says:

      As an aside, my friends and I held a party on November 5, 1997.

      Also, I had forgotten (or was unaware) where the phrase “Memory Hole” had actually come from until this past week.

      Thirdly, and more pertinent to the meat of your comment, it was interesting fiddling with the wife’s Kindle and reading 1984, since Amazon sent 1984 down the Memory Hole. I know of a lot of fears of what The New Day will bring, as far as the lack of concreteness, and thus permanency, in documentation. I can’t say why it doesn’t bother me. Mostly because I think as far as that goes, far more was gained than lost.

      By which I mean, maybe Politico can immediately retract a misbegotten article, but several years ago I read a column by (pre-conversion) Bruce Bartlett wherein he said that the real problem with illegal immigration was that it drove down wages and that this was bad for workers. I was immediately able to google “Bruce Bartlett minimum wage” and find him saying that artificially high wages were a bad thing, a couple years before. The ability to do such a thing before the Internet, even though hard copies of the old column would presumably have existed, is absolutely huge. Ditto for people who were moaning about the cost of Obama’s inauguration but defending Bush’s four years earlier.

      If history is honesty, I think we are made more honest rather than less, despite the ability to pull things back.Report

      • Avatar greginak says:

        Oh i agree on the whole things are better now in many ways. If anything we suffer from a high signal to noise ratio now. But the signal we can find is wondrous. There are also people who are capturing everything thing that goes up on the web so most things will get saved one way or another. This is the golden time to be an archivist; there is so much to record whether its a disappearing language which can now be widely heard or old books which can be digitized and saved.Report

        • Avatar Will Truman says:

          In tinkering with the wife’s Kindle, I’ve been downloading all sorts of stuff from Project Gutenberg. I am also seriously eyeing LibreVox for future audio entertainment purposes.

          It’s sad that things will seemingly not ever be falling into the public domain to be able to do this sort of thing in the future.Report

          • Avatar greginak says:

            I’ve found the Internet Archive a great place for all sorts of oddities and interesting things that are now more accessible to all and saved for posterity.


            Their live music archive however is fantastic. There are tens of thousands of live shows by all sorts of bands that are free to download. If you like music then check it out. Its all legal, the bands have to okay it, and free. Some of the shows are taped by ordinary people in the crowd some are with fancy equipment. I’ve found a few bands through their live shows.Report

      • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

        As an aside, my friends and I held a party on November 5, 1997.

        I’m just thankful we somehow avoided the Year of the Yushityu 2007 Mimetic-Resolution-Cartridge-View-Motherboard-Easy-To-Install-Upgrade For Infernatron/InterLace TP Systems For Home, Office Or Mobile [sic].Report

  5. Avatar DensityDuck says:

    I always thought that the primary lesson of 1984 was “you can feel about how you think, and you can think about how you feel, but never confuse feeling for thinking”.

    Then I got into an argument where someone told me that it didn’t matter whether or not something was Constitutional because they felt really bad about it.  I asked what they thought of the Two Minutes Hate that morning and they didn’t know what I was talking about.Report