By John Rodden and John Rossi
Rodden is the author of some twenty books on topics as different as the career of George Orwell and Communism in East Germany. He received his Ph.D. degree from the University of Virginia. Rossi is Professor Emeritus of History at LaSalle University in Philadelphia. His most recent book is “Baseball and American Culture: A History.”
Seven decades ago on June 8, George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” exploded on the cultural front — fittingly enough, just two months before the Soviet Union’s first successful atomic test that August, which broke America’s nuclear monopoly. Orwell’s atomic blast represented an urgent and timely warning. Almost overnight, in the wake of the surrender of Germany and Japan that ended World War II in 1945, a new war—the so-called Cold War—was emerging. (Orwell is often credited with coining the term.)
What educated person is not at least vaguely familiar with the language and vision of Orwell’s novel — even if he or she does not recognize the source? Indeed the very ignorance of the source represents an inadvertent tribute to the power of Orwell’s language and vision. Like Shakespeare (“All the world’s a stage,” “To be or not to be,” “This above all: to thine own self be true”), so deeply have some of his locutions become lodged the cultural lexicon that most people no longer recognize their author, let alone their source. “Big Brother” is a TV reality show, not a tyrannical figure in a novel, right?
Today, as in the case of Shakespeare, hundreds of millions of people mouth Orwell’s coinages and catchphrases, such as Big Brother, doublethink, thoughtcrime, and Newspeak — and even his name as proper adjective, “Orwellian” (i.e., horrific, oppressive).
Nineteen Eighty-Four represents Orwell’s “Orwellian” nightmare — in the form of a fictional anti-utopia of what the future might hold. It projects a world 35 years away—half the biblical lifespan of three score and ten. Completed by the end of 1948, Orwell flipped the last two digits to underscore his anti-utopian theme of a world turned upside down and inside out. The date resultant from the flipped digits also gave the novel its immediacy. Previous anti-utopias, such as Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World “(1932), had cast their dire scenarios far into the future, which lessened their dramatic impact and tended to render them entertaining thought experiments. (Huxley’s action is set in the 26th century.)
By contrast, Orwell depicts the planet in the immediate aftermath of a global nuclear war that has nearly annihilated the human species and is now governed by three tyrannical rival empires, one of which is ruled by Big Brother. Orwell’s vision thus projects a world in which middle-aged readers in 1949 might find themselves in old age — and certainly their children and grandchildren were likely to witness it.
“Nineteen Eighty-Four” remains widely read today — and ubiquitously quoted and cited. In fact, during the spring of 2017, after the inauguration of President Donald Trump, the book achieved the remarkable, unprecedented feat of skyrocketing to Number One on the fiction bestseller lists.
This occurred an astonishing 67 years after its original date of release. Expectations are that sales will pass 30 million by the time of the 2020 election in the U.S. Already partisan pundits are screaming that Trump is Big Brother — or the Democrats are thought criminals — and on and on. Hatred in Oceania is fomented by periodic “Hate Week” rallies where Party members bleat “Two Minute Hate” chants. (Critics of the Trump rallies compare the chants of his supporters — such as “Lock Her Up” about “Crooked Hillary” Clinton and her alleged crimes — to the Hate Week rallies in “Nineteen Eighty-Four.”)
Orwell’s novel voices his still-relevant warning of what might happen if certain global trends of the early postwar era continued. And these trends—privacy invasion, corruption of language, cultural drivel and mental debris (“prolefeed”), bowdlerization (or “rectification”) of history, undermining of objective truth — persist in our own time, Orwell was right to warn his readers in the immediate aftermath of the defeat of Hitler and the still-regnant Stalin in 1949.
And his alarms still resound in the twenty-first century. Above all, urges Orwell, beware the power of government, especially as it spreads its tentacles into your private life — for example, as has happened with the snooping of the National Security Agency geeks, which makes Winston’s terror about the Thought Police all too real, given their technical wizardry at penetrating into our daily habits and quotidian transactions.
Ditto with the power of those inadequately regulated or supervised corporate entities such as Facebook. Protect your freedoms and your right to dissent from social norms. Whether he dons his official robes of Big Government authority or his commercial cloak of Consumer Service, the spectral figure known as Big Brother hasn’t disappeared. Instead he has mutated into ever more insidious, often digital, forms and formats.