Friday, June 1, 2012


1949, "Commemorative 1984 Edition" from Signet Classic
George Orwell
Possibly bought new for $2.95
Worn paperback

I'm not sure if this is the copy I had in high school, when it was a big deal to read the book in 1984, comparing it to reality.  Certainly, there were repressive elements in the world then, including, as Walter Cronkite's Preface points out, in Khomeini's Iran.  Eric Fromm's 1961 Afterword observes examples of "doublespeak" in the U.S.  I think the Newspeak aspect of the novel is the most interesting, and in some ways the least dated, as language has continued to be abused by various figures of authority, including the makers of bumper stickers.  ("Freedom Is Slavery" isn't terribly different from "Freedom Isn't Free," and six decades after Orwell, three decades after Reagan, waging war to create peace is still a common idea.)

If I recall correctly, left-wing writer Alexander Cockburn had two main objections to this novel in 1984.  (I can't go check, because I've got his book coming up much later, and I'd rather be wrong than jump ahead.)  One was what he called the "silly prole business," the idea that the uneducated, unwashed, but good-hearted proletarians were going to rise up and rebel.  Not that Cockburn was being classist, but that the way that Orwell presents the proles was silly.  The "hero" Winston Smith thinks that the proles are happy in their simplicity, and there's not much in the novel to indicate otherwise. 

Cockburn's other gripe was with how Orwell handles sex.  As I noted with Brave New World, the view of sex is very different, not Huxley's treatment of it as a form of control but as a form of rebellion.  Smith's girlfriend Julia is a "rebel below the waist."  While sex and/or love can be expressions of freedom, they can also be chains that tie people to society.  Both Huxley and Orwell are too simplistic, as well as sexist about how they present women, and women's sexuality.  This was not Cockburn's complaint, but rather that Orwell was, again, silly in how he wrote, and indeed the romance is a bit far-fetched.

I remember what most terrified me about this book when I read it as a teenager was the idea that you could rebel and then find that the rebellion was being controlled by society.  In particular, it was scary that nice old Mr. Charrington and sympathetic O'Brien were agents of the state.  Even "Goldstein's" book was written by committee.

As an adult, even in an age when technology and privacy have impacted each other in ways that were unimaginable in the past, even fifteen years ago when I first got into the Internet, I find that freedom is still possible.  Yes, your employer (or potential employer) may be snooping into your Facebook.  Yes, your bags (or your body) may be searched at the airport.  But many people do manage to lead lives of freedom and integrity (in both senses), and we don't have to worry that we will, although it may take years, end up shot in the head for being ourselves.  Or even if we are, we'll go ahead and express ourselves anyway.

And then there are the people who think that the computer is watching them like a telescreen.

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