Book Reviews

Thou Shall Not Take Orwell’s Name in Vain

1984 by George Orwell

1984 by George Orwell

“But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better.”
–George Orwell, Politics and the English Language

With the telenovela that is currently starring Edward Snowden and the National Security Agency continuing to entertain us with a real life version of Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego, people from all political and social persuasions have been decrying the “Orwellian” nature of the American government and its secretive spy agencies. They shake their heads and speak of Big Brother in low voices in an attempt to sound profound. But here is the hard truth: we are not living in 1984, the NSA is not Big Brother, and there is no Two Minutes of Hate (although the Rush Limbaugh show comes pretty close).

1984 was about so much more than government surveillance, and even the all-knowing eye of Big Brother’s monitors is a far cry from the NSA mining Internet data and call logs. The true terror of 1984 was the complete and total control Big Brother had over the citizens of Oceania, both physically and mentally. The government controlled everything—from the food you could eat to the entertainment you could “enjoy”. But perhaps most importantly, the government even attempted to control the language that each person used.  By muddling down the words used by the people, the government could then further invade the consciousness of each person.

“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought?….The whole climate of thought will be different. In fact, there will be no thought, as we understand it now.”–1984

Words are important. They carry history and meaning and context that is vital to not just how we communicate, but to how we perceive the world around us. So when we throw around political buzzwords when they aren’t truly applicable, we dilute their meaning and insult everyone’s intelligence.

Orwell hated this abuse of language used by people in power. He believed that governments used these buzzwords to scare the populace and to manipulate them into blind acceptance of whatever the government wanted.  In one of his greatest essays, Orwell writes,

“When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases — bestial, atrocities, iron heel, bloodstained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker’s spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them.”–Politics and the English Language

While Orwell probably would not have liked the NSA monitoring his emails, he would not have declared the American government to be anything like the government in his fictional dystopia.

There are no thought police in the United States. There is no Room 101. I can protest and petition and disagree with my government without fear of imprisonment or violent retribution by the state.

If you really want to see a government that does use thought police and Room 101–a society that can truly be called Orwellian–just enjoy some time in North Korea.

Feel free to vehemently disagree with me in the comments.  I assure you that even if the NSA sees it, they won’t really care that much.


  • ‘But here is the hard truth: we are not living in 1984.’

    White, middle-class Americans generally have a hard time remembering that the all-inclusive ‘we’ may not include all Americans equally. Native Americans living on the poorest reservations, and African Americans and Mexican Americans living in the worst housing projects, do not enjoy the same liberties as do white, educated, middle class Americans even if in theory they have the same constitutional rights. The distant and recent domestic history of the USA is primarily a history of rich, white males of European stock aggrandising themselves at the expense of others. When Orwell wrote 1984, miscegenation was still a criminal act in much of the Land of the Free.

    Further, American federalism entails that the ‘US Government’ refers not only to the Federal Government but also to the State Government and the Local Government, whether it be City Hall or the Town Hall. The rights of a poor black living in Texas, Louisiana or Georgia, are not the same as the rights of a rich white living in New Hampshire.

    Not all those living, working and paying taxes in the USA enjoy the rights of US citizens. The rights of US citizens differ from the rights of US non-citizen residents. Any person convicted of a felony in the USA, especially if they are not a US citizen, discovers that their civil rights are further restricted. The US government may do many things legally to an American, including killing them at a distance with a missile fired from a drone. This last despite the fact that the person has never been convicted in any court of law for any crime. Even Big Brother’s global reach was more limited. 1984, therefore, does not begin to describe the unrestricted, modern day power of the US government.

    • All salient points, and very well written.

      I think it’s pretty clear that Orwell would disapprove of many elements in modern American life, particularly the examples you provide. I think he also would disapprove of the “bumper sticker politics” that now seem to consume public discourse. Distilling complex political and social problems into click-bait headlines in national news sources does no one any good, and only serves to dumb-down rhetoric and further hinder discussion of very important issues.

      We here at Biblio love discussions of very important issues, so we definitely love it when Bibliophiles comment on our blog!

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