I found re-reading this book simultaneously reassuring and deeply unsettling.
Since the election, tensions have run so high in this country that it is easy to feel like we’re living in unprecedented times and that the challenges we face are entirely unique. Reading Orwell’s dystopian classic is a stark reminder that the world has seen this – or something very like it – before and mankind’s better nature eventually prevailed.
I would certainly like to think it will do so again.
The first time I read 1984 was in the early 1990s, at the dawn of the Internet era. Reading it now is a very different experience. Then, you could envision the control of information depicted in the story. Now, it is hard even to imagine any entity with the power to rewrite history when every minute detail of life is documented in so many ways.
The psychological analysis, on the other hand, resonates as well as it ever did. Better, perhaps, in the so-called “post-fact” era of picking and choosing news sources to confirm personal biases when it is painfully apparent how willing some are to be fed the conclusions they want rather than making judgments based on objective realities. The willingness to accept party propaganda even over the evidence of one’s own memories… that seems all too plausible at the moment and echoes personal experiences I’ve had in recent months.
Likewise, it is impossible not to see a parallel between the state of perpetual war and the frenzy of xenophobic hate nurtured by the Party to keep the masses supportive of their government and the populist furor over refugees and undocumented immigrants that was on display in this year’s political campaigns. Our own country is engaged in something unsettlingly close to perpetual warfare, with an idea rather than a nation as our enemy, and it is not hard to see how that could be used to manipulate public opinion.
The whole concept strikes at the heart of one of my greatest worries about the near future – that warfare could conceivably become a tool wielded by an otherwise unpopular leader or party to cling to power. We as a nation are stunningly reluctant to vote out a sitting president in times of war.
But the passage that really stuck with me came not from the discussion of how the Party could impose a dystopian society on the masses without provoking rebellion, but rather from O’Brien’s the explanation of why it would do so.
“Power is not a means, it is an end.” Orwell writes. “One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship.”
Amid worrying signs about the health of our democracy, voters embraced the idea of revolution in 2016. Only time will tell if stoking that populist furor was merely a means to a dictatorial end.