In preparation for a book discussion scheduled for November, I recently reread George Orwell’s short but enormously thought-provoking novel, 1984. Orwell wrote the novel in 1948, a post-war year when the world was clouded by uncertainty and the Soviet Union posed a threat that was not yet understood but was feared by intellectuals, who worried that a totalitarian state could rob its citizens of their individuality and of all human rights.
I had not revisited this book in many years, but once again I found myself caught up in its premises and amazed by its author’s foresight and his ability to engage readers’ interest in a future so fraught with frightening possibilities. Like many others, I had read the book long before the title date and so did not observe that New Year’s with the grim expectation of the fulfillment of Orwell’s prophecy. After all, the 80s were the Reagan Years, when the stock markets were flourishing and for savers, interest rates were soaring. The American middle class was too caught up in consuming to give much thought to the ultimate cost of our extravagance. We had credit cards, and few of us gave any heed to the notion that each time we used those cards we were leaving a trail of our personal lives. We had given unseen eyes permission to track our buying habits, our organization memberships, our reading preferences, and even our choices of causes to support. Most frightening of all, we made it possible for unscrupulous thieves to steal our identities. In all too many cases, some were able to live la dolce vita at the expense of honest citizens.
Since 9/11/2001, when our peace was disturbed by terrorists determined to destroy our way of life, we have seen even more of our liberties jeopardized. What we once took for granted is now under attack. Most of us agree that the steps taken to protect us are necessary for our safety, but when we are subjected to those procedures. Endless lines at check-in booths at airports make us cranky, and at times we question the methods of the personnel trained to provide the scrutiny of passengers. Of course, we all agree that we wish that these measures had been in place on the fateful September morning, but that is in the past and we are inclined to be future-oriented.
One of the main themes of 1984 is that in the totalitarian regime that has taken over rule of Oceania, the past is irrelevant and only the present is of consequence. Remembrance of things past is dangerous because only acceptance of what is makes us compliant. If citizens could recall “the good old days” of yesterday, they would rebel at the evil of a today without hope for a brighter tomorrow. Just thinking about the past is criminal, but talking about it is even worse.
I recommend that serious thinkers read (or re-read) 1984 as an intellectual exercise. To use a quote inimical to Big Brother, who may or may not be watching us, “Those who refuse to study the past are doomed to repeat it.”