Banned Book Club: 1984

Title: 1984

Published: 1949

Author: George Orwell (i.e. Eric Arthur Blair) (1903-1950)

Challenge status: #9 on  Radcliffe Publishing Course Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century and frequent target of banning attempts according to the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. Book #4 on Summer of Banned Books ’13.

Why: Well, when challenged in Florida in 1981 the reasons given were that the book was “pro-communist and contained explicit sexual matter.”

First line: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

Synopsis: The foreboding classic view of a future that is now partially here: a totalitarian regime that effectively controls not only the behavior but the very thoughts and memories of it’s citizens. Winston Smith is not a loyal member of the party: he has questions and doubts that end up pulling him into a theoretical resistance movement and into the arms of a fellow disbeliever (his lover Julia), both from which he is eventually saved via an active re-education that takes place deep in his heart and within the Ministry of Love (Miniluv).

Thanks to Orwell we now have some amazing vocabulary (thoughtcrime, Big Brother, newspeak, doublethink, unpersons) and concepts (entertainment screens that broadcast while conducting surveillance, mini-helicopters and microphones hidden in plain sight – always collecting data, office workers who’s whole function is to “correct” the news to reflect the current truth, party practices destabilizing bonds between family members as a method of distributing policy enforcement, a government that creates tabloids, lotteries, and pornography to keep the proletariat subdued, armies that bomb their own citizens to further the image that the country is at war, politicians that expend all surplus resources as part of useless skirmishes to keep the populace hungry and angry – never really seeking to change balances-of-power between the primary competing nation-states).

As a teenager one of the things that struck me about the novel was this concept that love was discouraged (even physical love between spouses) because it distracted energies from political activities (rallies, 2-minutes of hate, lynchings) — and the party accepted no true love except the all-encompassing love for Big Brother. Rereading this as an adult, those same ideas are still interesting, and now I also think the discussion in the Emmanual Goldstein text and transferred from O’Brien is even more interesting – beyond the extinguishing of love, but the whole extinguishing of self, that is enforced so effectively by the party, this passage illustrates quite a bit of this:

You are a flaw in the pattern, Winston. You are a stain that must be wiped out. Did I not tell you just now that we are different from the persecutors of the past? We are not content with negative obedience, nor even with the most abject submission. When finally you surrender to us, it must be of your own free will. We do no destroy the heretic because he resists us; so long as he resists us we never destroy him. We convert him, we capture his inner mind, we reshape him. We burn all evil and all illusion out of him; we bring him over to our side, not in appearance, but genuinely, heart and soul. We make him one of ourselves before we kill him. It is intolerable to us that an erroneous thought should exist anywhere in the world, however secret and powerless it may be. Even in the instant of death we cannot permit any deviation. In the old days a heretic walked to the stake still a heretic, proclaiming his heresy, exulting in it. Even the victim of the Russian purges could carry rebellion locked up in his skull as he walked down the passage waiting for the bullet. But we make the brain perfect before we blow it out. The command of the old despotisms was ‘Thou shalt not.’ The command of the totalitarians was ‘Thou shalt.’ Our command is ‘Thou art.’ No one whom we bring to this place ever stands out against us. Everyone is washed clean…[traitors to the party] begged to be shot quickly, so that they could die while their minds were still clean.’ – O’Brien to Winston, 1984 (Orwell)

The idea that is so striking coming from this passage (ok, rant) is the lengths to which a self-protective institution must go to if it’s goal is self-preservation. The institution has developed mechanisms that protect it, it’s structure, power and position. It dictates culture to perpetuate control. In a scenario like that, the enemies of the state are not other states, but it’s own citizens, it’s own workers. It is a dark mirror image of Utopia. Utopia being a state that is perfect in that it has solved humanity’s problems. 1984’s perfect state is the one in which the state has solved problems presented BY humanity.

Since the PRISM story broke earlier this week I’ve been seeing a lot of references to 1984 and Big Brother, and so having established this would be the 4th book I read on my Summer of Banned Books project made it timely. Really, each book has been timely in it’s own way. Fahrenheit 451 highlighted how willingly people will abandon self-awareness in favor of entertainment. Slaughterhouse-Five highlights how people can bend their own perception of reality as a survival mechanism. Catch-22 shows how power struggles within an institution be warped so that a single “ends” can justify almost any self-interested “means”, etc.

After what I’ve read one of the things I’ve been thinking about a lot is how participatory our culture is, how we’ve opted into a system we’re creating for ourselves. There was this really interesting marketing piece done by Visa about 10 years called “The Virtuous Circle“; essentially it tried to sell people that healthy economies are ones that are transparent, and electronic (i.e. “banked”) systems are more transparent than cash-based. This is true, the paper was not incorrect. It was self-serving, of course, but it was also true. And what’s more is that electronic payment systems are more convenient for the participants, for the most part. Just like financial systems, we’ve mobilized, distributed, and digitized all kinds of systems – for our convenience. Who you connect with, what you say, what you search for, where you go. It doesn’t take very long for the bits to exist somewhere and then for them to be consolidated, correlated, and cross-referenced. It is not as though we haven’t pushed back before — in 1988, after Justice Bork’s video rental records were leaked as part of the nomination process, the Video Privacy Protection Act (VPPA) was passed (18 USC 2710), which disallows disclosure of rental records/PII outside or ordinary course of business. It’s just that…well…that saying about “nobody knows you’re a dog on the internet”? The plausibility that nobody could figure it out rapidly goes to zero the more bits one leaves lying around. What will we do when we can’t carry all of our bits with us? Will people really opt-out (can they?) — or can the incentives or behavior of self-interested institutions be changed?


What do you think?

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