At some point in your academic career you were probably assigned George Orwell’s classic novel, 1984. If you were anything like me when I was assigned this book in 8th grade, you didn’t actually read it. While looking for a book to read during a recent trip through Europe I stumbled upon 1984 in Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. I decided to give the book a fair try this time, and upon finishing was left contemplating the relevancy and importance of the messages Orwell wrote of in 1949. Reading Orwell’s warning of totalitarianism and fascism, particularly in the political environment we find ourselves in today, was a fascinating intellectual exercise. So, since I never gave my 8th grade book report the time and attention it deserved, here is my look into how the warnings of George Orwell’s novel 1984 fit into the political arguments of both republicans and democrats in 2017.
If you are unable to think back to your 8th grade Language Arts class, let me jog your memory regarding the story’s plot. It is the year 1984 and the world is controlled by three totalitarian superpowers. In Oceania (North and South America, the UK, Southern Africa, and Australia) a fascist leader by the name of Big Brother serves as the figure head and leader of The Party, which controls all aspects of life. The ‘thought police’ are the police authority who fights ‘thought crime,’ thoughts that reject the ideals and philosophy of Big Brother and The Party. Committing thought crime leads to being ‘vaporized:’ torture, death, and having every trace of your existence erased from memory. The story follows Winston, a party member who begins to engage in thought crime by having a love affair and by joining the resistance. In Oceania, however, Big Brother is always watching, and Winston is caught, tortured, and ‘rehabilitated’ to love Big Brother.
This alternate universe which Orwell creates provides both democrats and republicans with the cautionary tales to pin the opposing side with labels like ‘fascists’ or ‘totalitarians.’ Winston’s job for The Party is to correct newspapers, books, and other publications so that the historic facts originally published can be changed to match the outcome’s reality. For example, when chocolate rations were 20 grams rather than the promised 30g, Winston’s job was to change all documents where 30g was promised and make sure it shows that they actually promised 20g. As The Party says, “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” When putting this into context of our current political environment, we need look no further than our new Commander in Chief. Rewriting the facts has seems to have become a regular pastime for Donald Trump and his team. In fact, they have even given it their own Orwellian name – alternative facts. So when people push back against Sean Spicer, Kellyanne Conway, and Reince Priebus for ignoring and changing facts, this is not a biased liberal-media attacking conservatives. Those challengers see Trump and his advisors using alternative facts rather than actual facts as comparable to Winston erasing the history which makes The Party look bad and replacing it with falsehoods that give The Party more power. If Trump and his administration are willing to lie about crowd sizes, election turnout and results, or his past comments which are documented online, what else will they lie about?
Republicans have plenty of ammo from 1984 to use against democrats as well. The most notable example is the idea of ‘thought crime,’ not being allowed to even think, let alone speak out, against The Party and their ideals. The Party controls what you think, what you say, and how you say it. The fight against political correctness and ‘safe spaces’ on college campuses today have become one of the rallying cries for the right, claiming that they are tools of the left to control and suppress idea, thought, and truth. Comedian Adam Carolla and conservative commentator Dennis Prager discuss this type of intellectual suppression at length in their new documentary, No Safe Spaces. “Having your beliefs challenged is as American as apple pie,” Carolla has said. “College campuses are supposed to be where diversity of opinion is celebrated, not silenced.”
This same tactic is seen used by the Boycott, Divest, and Sanction (BDS) movement against Israel. Rather than engage with Israeli speakers, BDS on college campuses works to have those speakers barred from even coming to campus to engage. When they fail to silence those voices through boycott, the next step can be physical altercation (as seen in London in late 2016). Rather than search for debate or nuance, the practices of safe spaces and the suppression of another’s opinion simply reduce our thought and understanding of the issues. Excluding a republican or conservative speaker from your campus out of political disagreement is not only hazardous to political discourse, but it could potentially infringe on first amendment rights.
1984 truly is a cautionary tale written for our time. Orwell writes of a time where the government controls all aspects of life, from your own thoughts to your own history. We are certainly far off from living in Orwell’s fantasy, but that should not make these comparisons any less frightening. Without confronting hard truths and engaging rather than retreating, we may be doomed to ignore Orwell’s warnings. We can challenge lies and misinformation with conversation and facts, and we can be politically decent while still speaking hard truths. Debate should be heated, but discussing our shared future does not have to be divisive. After all, what’s more American than taking advantage of our diversity of cultures and ideas?