George Orwell’s ‘1984’ can teach us how to fight today’s totalitarians 75 years after he wrote it

Americans still read George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” 75 years after it was first published on June 8, 1949.

At the time, the year 1984 was far in the future — now it’s 40 years in the past.

Yet our present feels more than ever like Orwell’s dystopia.

The novel is set on Airstrip One, a totalitarian version of what is today Britain.

Its protagonist is Winston Smith, a censor working in the Ministry of Truth.

His job is to alter historical records to conform to whatever the ruling party now decrees.

He rewrites history and the very documents on which historians rely.

Reality is whatever the Party says it is — who could prove otherwise?

Surveillance is inescapable: Every screen watches the people who watch it.

Even thinking the wrong thoughts is a crime, though the authorities do everything in their power to prevent thoughtcrime before it happens by mutilating language itself.

“We’re destroying words — scores of them, hundreds of them, every day,” boasts one of Winston’s colleagues who’s working on the latest Newspeak dictionary.    

There will be no more words like “excellent” or “bad,” only “doubleplusgood” or “ungood,” variations on a single base term.

The 1984 of Orwell’s imagination resembled the Soviet Union of his lifetime in many ways.

But he intended the book as a warning about what could happen in the West, too.

The Soviet Union is long gone, yet much of what Orwell feared is coming to pass in the free world today, not under a totalitarian dictatorship but through the pervasive power of politically correct ideology.

“Nineteen Eighty-Four” presents a simple picture of a state run by one party.

We have competing parties in government, but in effect one ideological Party dominates our schools, our media and the federal bureaucracy, as well as much of corporate America — particularly human resources departments.

And what does the Party do?

It destroys words, alters books and documents, surveilles us all and polices opinion.

When a dissenter is made to disappear in “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” he’s “vaporized.”

Our Newspeak word for that today is “canceled.”

If we’re better off because the Thought Police of 2024 don’t employ torture, as the Ministry of Love does in “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” we’re also worse off in one way:

We have no excuse — we aren’t violently coerced into obedience, we’re simply nudged, nagged and incentivized into going along with insanity.

A Supreme Court nominee doesn’t know what the word “woman” means — well, how could she, if the Newspeak dictionary hasn’t been perfected yet?

The Canadian Cancer Society can’t use the terms “cervix” or “vagina,” instead it’s “front hole.”

When someone like Bruce Jenner changes sex, a Winston Smith in 2024 amends birth certificates and encyclopedias to say Jenner was always a woman.

The modern Winston also rewrites novels by Roald Dahl and Ian Fleming to reflect today’s political sensitivities — not under orders from the government but in compliance with self-censoring publishers and copyright holders.

In the novel, the Ministry of Plenty proclaims nothing but good news about the economy, even as chocolate rations are reduced.

Here and now, economists in step with the Party flock to op-ed pages and social media to insist that America is prospering, even as inflation reduces what every shopper can buy at the grocery stores.

And of course, surveillance is ubiquitous in 2024, too — only the screens that watch us are the ones we carry in our pockets.

Sometimes there’s even a totalitarian state on the other side of the screen, if the app you’re using happens to be TikTok.

Re-reading “Nineteen Eighty-Four” in 2024 casts new light on our world in other ways, too.

The sloganeering and mindless rage of the Two Minutes’ Hate, directed against a Jew in Orwell’s novel — the Party’s great subversive enemy, Emmanuel Goldstein — echo the hatred directed at Jews on many college campuses and in other bastions of the Party in America and Europe today.

In the book, the Party is an elite; most of society consists of “proles” who are politically disempowered but otherwise, to a surprising extent, left alone — and lonely:

The Party keeps them docile with pornography.

Within the Party, on the other hand, a strict code of sexual regulation is observed, encouraged by the Anti-Sex League.

Unfettered sexual attraction and strong emotional ties between men and women are subversive of Party discipline, or even a spur to rebellion, as Winston discovers.

In Orwellian America, pornography is ubiquitous, but men and women have been taught to be suspicious of each other.

Unlike in “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” however, the Party we live under is not all-powerful.

It can be stopped, if we stop accepting its lies — if, after 75 years, we heed Orwell.

Daniel McCarthy is the editor of Modern Age: A Conservative Review and editor-at-large of The American Conservative.

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