Is Donald Trump the new Big Brother? That’s what everyone’s been asking, after Kellyanne Conway argued with NBC’s Chuck Todd about “alternative facts” after the inauguration. Journalists likened her expression to Orwell’s totalitarian government in “1984,” in which the Party can destroy facts—whole lives—with one fell swoop of their propaganda machine.
But as Tom Nichols adroitly noted for The Federalist yesterday, Orwell’s dismal and sordid picture of totalitarian decay is not quite right for our current situation. Yes, our government has a surveillance state that some fear encroaches on Orwellian territory. There’s been some confusing—and outright wrong—representation of facts as of late.
But the brutal totalitarianism of “1984” isn’t the only sort of totalitarianism we should fear: there’s a more potent and applicable example in Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World.” In Huxley’s novel, totalitarianism is a soft and supple thing. Sated with hedonism and distraction, citizens aren’t even aware how far they’ve fallen into the clutches of their autocratic masters. The moment someone has an original or rebellious thought, there’s a drug, catchy tune, or sex to distract them. This is much more indicative of the state of our society, in which every manner of distraction—from the Internet to the television to our increasing opioid crisis—appeals to the average citizen.
Additionally, the tone of Huxley’s world seems more applicable to our own. In the first three pages of Orwell’s work, we’re barraged with a litany of doleful adjectives: everything is “cold,” “gritty,” “meagre,” “rough,” “harsh,” “grimy,” “sordid,” and “colorless.” Want is everywhere. Scarcity is palpable.
But in today’s America—despite the difficulties and poverty that are, indeed, prevalent—there’s a polish on everything. Consumerism lends a sort of glitter to the air, a distracted and addicted sheen to the average person’s eyes. This is Huxley’s world, translated to ours.
We Have Embraced Weak Ties, and Lost Real Community
In “Brave New World,” there is plenty of “stuff,” but real community or relationship is nonexistent. People’s lives are entirely guided by weak ties, as the government seeks to quell any strong passion that might lead people into private meaning or happiness. Sex is fine, so long as it isn’t monogamous. Friendship is allowable, so long as it does not guide its subjects into deep subjects or thoughts. The moment anyone is tempted into gloominess, there’s sex or music or drugs to divert him.
Thus, the government—which is still controlling and panopticon-like in its dealings—can slink along in secret, monitoring its subjects without any fear of retribution or anger on the part of its subjects. This is “Big Brother,” but without the scowl.
Trump himself does not seem powerful enough, or brilliant enough, to institute such a rule. Nor need he: if we have a surveillance state, or a propaganda-like press, it existed before he came into office. Perhaps the most positive turn of events we’ve seen since November 2016 is the realization on the part of many progressives that an unbridled federal government and unaccountable media are bad. They may seem pleasant when “your man” (or woman) is in power—but the instant that person leaves office, the uncurbed power they leave in their wake is a frightening and troubling thing.
American Citizens Still Have Independence and Power
Unlike the subjects of “1984,” we are not powerless. Unlike the subjects of “Brave New World,” we are not clueless. That gives us much, indeed, to be thankful for. We have the ability to see authoritarian or overbearing strains in our government and do something about it.
But another thing “Brave New World” makes clear is that a culture given over to hedonism may commit suicide through its own lack of initiative or consciousness. As Nichols notes in his piece,
“There is no need for Big Brother when people willingly withdraw from public life. … we are killing our own sense of industry and independence on both the right and the left—yes, across the American political spectrum—and thus are far more at risk of sliding into the affluent but illiberal ‘Brave New World’ than the regimented and disciplined world of Oceania.”
This is a troubling thought we must confront head-on. How do we combat lethargy and apathy among ourselves? How do we keep alive the vision of liberty and community that’s been handed down to us?
This involves much more than mere political involvement or outcry. It’s not just about what we do, but how we do it: the spirit that animates our actions. A young person who gets involved in “Brave New World’s” government is likely to get sucked into its machinations, its bureaucracy, its ideology. To stand apart from the fray and demand something more requires being something more.
In this instance, ironically enough, both “1984” and “Brave New World” have a powerful, united message for their readers. They remind us of the power of the past, and of the power of words.
‘1984’ Displays the Power of Ancient Things
Not far into “1984,” we discover Winston’s secret rebellion: he has bought a book. And not just any book—an antique diary. Orwell describes Winston’s writing thus:
The pen was an archaic instrument, seldom used even for signatures, and he had procured one, furtively and with some difficulty, simply because of a feeling that the beautiful creamy paper deserved to be written on with a real nib instead of being scratched with an ink pencil. Actually he was not used to writing by hand. Apart from very short notes, it was usual to dictate everything into the speakwrite, which was of course impossible for this present purpose.
Orwell’s bibliophilic description captures an idea that has animated many in American culture as of late: there’s a romance in the nature of physical things. There’s a romance in our interactions with them. In the midst of his sterile, cold, saddened world, it is the simple act of putting words onto paper that constitutes Winston’s most powerful rebellion.
Not much later, Winston has a powerful dream. It brings to mind a vision of beauty and belonging that is entirely antithetical to Winston’s current life: “Tragedy, he perceived, belonged to the ancient time, to a time when there was still privacy, love, and friendship, and when the members of a family stood by one another without needing to know the reason.” As the dream fades, writes Orwell, he “woke up with the word ‘Shakespeare’ on his lips.”