Minding the Orwell

April 10, 1996

A while back, an astute reader had corrected me on my use of the term "big brother," which I borrowed from George Orwell's 1984 to describe the surveillance in America Online's chat rooms. He charged I misapplied the phrase. By strict definition, he argued, the term is used to refer to totalitarian regimes, not private corporations. While my trusty Random House Unabridged does not limit totalitarianism to governments, admittedly I could have used a more precise word.

But hey, no great thought-crime. Orwell's the dude these days. In fact, in that very same issue of the newspaper which the story ran, two other references to him were made. Orwell's name rings out all through Internet newsgroups too. Wherever there is an accusation of censorship, influence peddling, spin doctoring, ahistoricism, or plain old fashioned thought control, Eric Blair's pen name will be employed to name the offending crime. Any rhetorically skewed label is not just euphemistic--it's Orwellian doublespeak. "Social responsibility," "intrepretating the law," "Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting"--Orwellian all. And how about "Big Brother"? We may not have one yet, but his name is everywhere.

So when anything from Republican budget proposals to classic rock stations have been branded as "Orwellian." How effective can that phrase be at describing anything anymore? In his 1946 essay "Politics and the English Language," Orwell railed against using words that have become so overused and misused that they no longer mean anything. How ironic.

Sometimes I was wonder if "Orwellian" "Big Brother," or "thought crimes" are the most appropriate tropes for our times. Perhaps they themselves are misleading. Media critic Neil Postman posed this question about Orwell in his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death. He wondered if Aldous Huxley's Brave New World wasn't more appropriate for the modern age than 1984.

Brave New World came out a few years before Orwell's book and wasn't as widely regarded, possessing none of 1984's bleak martyrdom, yet in many ways it came closer to describing the future, at least for the latter half of the 20th century. In Huxley's dystopia, there were no big brothers to watch over us. As far as he was concerned, none were needed. As Postman summarized:

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. . .Orwell feared the truth would be concealed from us, Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. In 1984. . .people are controlled by inflicting pain, in Brave New World they are controlled by inflicting pleasure.

"In short, Orwell feared that we hate what will ruin us," Postman concluded, "Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us."

Certainly, one need not go any further than the public relations department of R.J.R. Reynolds to find a healthy dose of doublespeak, but on the whole we're much closer to Brave New World than to 1984, thanks to television, the Net, computer games, movies. Yet who senses this? Chicago Reader columnist and Baffler 'zine Editor Thomas C. Frank hit a similar theme a few years back in an essay entitled "Why Johnny Can't Dissent," and more recently in his book The Conquest of Cool : Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism.

"As existential rebellion has become the more or less [the] style. . .so has the countercultural notion of a static, repressive Establishment grown hopelessly obsolete," he writes in the essay.

We once valued rebellion and individuality as the tools to beat white picket fences of conformity, if not oppression, but nowadays, Frank argues, the "Establishment" is far hipper than we could ever be. At least the commercial division of it anyway: Lou Reed hawks scooters, William Burroughs sells Nikes, and blues music sells beer. Individualism is a major selling tool: Obey your thirst.

"The anointed cultural opponent of capitalism are now capitalism's ideologues," Frank writes. Would we recognize them through the contradictions? Would Orwell? Perhaps, it's the greatest doublethink of them all.

--Joab Jackson

[ The archive || [E-mail]