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Why George Orwell’s 1984 Remains Relevant

29 Nov 2017Essay Samples

First published in 1949, George Orwell’s 1984 continues to function as a blueprint for ideological evil. The monstrousness of Stalinism and Nazism, which in Orwell’s day were very active political disasters, fuelled the author’s insights. Since World War II, the terrors of spastic ideology and hyper-violent complacency occur in many effective dystopian novels (such as Burgess’ seminal A Clockwork Orange)but what sets 1984 above Burgess’ book is its comprehensive understanding of the moral failure implicit in any totalitarian state; from the intimate nature of Winston Smith’s brainwashing in Room 101, to his interrogator’s demands for a belief that suits Big Brother, the reader gets a full understanding of how tyrants shape the thinking of a populace through Doublethink.

What Orwell described was an ongoing moral looseness, a determination to carry out orders without regard for human life. Radical thugs in today’s films and headlines are murdering innocent people while regarding themselves are liberators, such as underground movement in Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 film Children of Men. Some organizations seem to want even less perverse moral clout than this; they only want to confuse their opponents long enough to carry out a despicable act, such as the Sudanese government’s ongoing genocide in Darfur. This paper will compare Orwell’s descriptions (predictions?) as they occupy the America’s current collective imagination.

It would be disrespectful to the people of Darfur (or Iraq) to compare Orwell’s Oceania to our United States, except that the US, like most countries, uses media to create consensus through negative feeling. For instance, when Orwell’s Smith is writing in his diary about the war films he watched the previous evening (Orwell 12-13). In nearly punctuation-free text, Smith praises the footage for its gruesome detail (“there was a wonderful shot of a child’s arm going up up up right into the air”). The diarist’s chatty tone could easily be that of an American describing footage of the Arab janjaweed militias murdering refugees on CNN.

The diary entry’s tone is one of gratitude that such horrors were not happening in Oceania. However, as the novel continues, we find that comparable tragedies were constantly happening with the consent of Big Brother. This is especially vivid in Smith’s interrogation in Room 101.

But to look at White House’s response to the African genocide, we can see how certain methods of debate and dialogue, as described in 1984, affect the speed and vigour of American policy making. When Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir refers to the militias as “thieves and gangsters” while giving them air support for their raids on refugee camps, it is obvious that the international community is being conned (BBC 1). Meanwhile, as the White House threatens sanctions against the Khartoum government, our President Bush recently allowed it to spend a half-million dollars on a Washington lobbyist (Hitchens 1). Orwell’s Smith could easily have been ordered to digest comparably incompatible facts.

In fact, that was the whole point of Room 101. Smith is told by his interrogator, O’Brien, that “You are unable to remember real events and you persuade yourself that you remember other events which never happened. Fortunately it is curable” (Orwell 212).

In my opinion, this cure the interrogator eludes to (the threat of being eaten by rats) is the sort of thing that we Americans are proud to not to suffer, or to inflict upon others. That would not be the American Way. But then again, Smith did not fear being murdered this way until he was in Room 101. American pride is often mixed with paranoia, which is enhanced whenever we see on CNN the brutal governmental mishaps such as footage of Kent State and, more recently, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. Most Americans consider these events to be anomalies. They probably are.

What America is certain it doesn’t suffer is full-scale oppression or chaos, such as the situation in Children of Men. In some important ways, this film is like an update of the Orwellian themes found in Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 masterpiece A Clockwork Orange. Though the latter film makes more of the lingual issues of 1984, Children of Men brings forth a contemporary level of both governmental and rebel oppression that is absolutely the case today in many countries and in keeping with Orwell’s vision of the evil today. That is to say, Kubrick’s film emphasizes a dreary English dystopia that young men rebel against, while Cuarón’s film shows England exploding like Sierra Leone or Afghanistan or Sudan have in the last ten years.

In my opinion, because America and England share much history and culture, setting a national explosion of violence and disorder can make the Sudanese conflict more vivid and immediate to an American viewer. Children of Men shows how Doublethink essentially effects the terrorist mind by entrenching alternate realities within the militant imagination.

When Julianne Moore is recruiting her Winston Smith-like exlover (Clive Owen), she comes off as a sincere and decent rebel fighting the good fight. The viewer trusts her and Owen wants to trust her, too. As she pitches Owen on helping her underground organization, her colleagues loiter about with guns and stupidly brutal expressions. Moore’s confidence and clarity, her willingness to admit that her organization has made mistakes in the past, is convincing in spite of the fact that her crew appears willing to kill anyone for any reason. Her character seems smart enough to determine this for herself. (In fact, by her own admission, she has seen her fellow rebels murder indiscriminately.) But she is in essence living in a state of Doublethink, believing that her fellow gunmen have learned from their “mistakes” and are now going to conduct their baby snatching plan with discretion.

How wrong she was, as proven by the absolutely gut-wrenching murder of Michael Caine as the kindly and very fun old pothead. In my opinion, this deplorable execution is a contemporary testament to Orwell’s vision of how Doublethink is critical to contemporary evil just as it was in his 1949 novel. It shows how Doublethink enables a person to both be principled and have no principles at all.

The emotional delivery of this scene will no doubt become one of historical importance because Caine’s character, Jasper, never surrenders his humanity. As he is being shot (completely unnecessarily), Jasper is trying to get the gunman to pull his finger. This classic fart joke, in this context, is one of nonviolent defiance. Jasper dies with his character intact.

It is also important to recognize that Jasper was, in the movie’s grim setting, a genius of living. He had lived happily, with many friends, a wonderful home, a wife he loved, always with as much solitude or company as suited him. No such character exists in 1984 (or A Clockwork Orange) and it this inclusion is critical to vivifying the terrors of Doublethink.

The proponents of Doublethink, whether they are the Thought Police or the janjaweed militias, do not kill only people living in terrible conditions beyond the understanding of an American citizen. They will just as happily murder people who live in selfactualized, ideal conditions and who harm no one. In essence, doublethinking allows murderers to be completely indiscriminate in their brutality.

In our time, we sometimes need to practically taste the sensation of terror on screen before we really react to it. In my opinion, this is because terrorism is in full swing throughout many parts of the world and is the focus of contemporary media. The real problem here is that America is spearheading the War on Terror, and without a conscientious electorate, our current administration may resort to tactics that obscure the American Identity.

The incident at Abu Ghraib is a perfect example of this, wherein soldiers representing us such Lynndie England show American soldiers to be sadistic monsters no better than the Islamist militias in Sudan. Room 101 comes to mind. When we allow these things to happen, we as a nation are sliding into the moral grease pit of Doublethink. Essentially, we become terrorists ourselves.

This is of course not what we want. In my opinion, this is not what any American administration wants. Even the opponents of George W. Bush would be hard pressed to prove that he wanted such things to happen. Or, at least he did not want to be seen approving of it.

Perhaps it can be proven that Bush secretly allowed these humiliations of accused Islamist terrorists, but he still never admitted it, because that would prove that Washington had succumbed to the moral relativism indicative of Doublespeak, making us no better than the terrorists.

The blueprint of evil that Orwell drew in 1984 remains a pertinent pillar of our collective moral imagination. We see the Sudanese militias murdering refugees in the name of their nation and their faith and we are grateful to not live in such a vicious and contradictory state. This gratitude is a moral clarity that Orwell made obvious to us. For that reason, 1984 will remain a seminal and decisive text in the 21st century 8

Bibliography

  • Orwell, George. 1984. London: Penguin Books, 1949.
  • Cuarón, Alfonso. Children of Men. Universal Pictures, 2006.
  • Hitchens, Christopher. “Realism in Darfur: Consider the horrors of peace.” Slate. November 7, 2005. May 20, 2007. http://www.slate.com/id/2129657.
  • “Q&A: Sudan’s Darfur conflict.” BBC News. April 19, 2007. May 19, 2007. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/3496731.stm. 

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