Thursday, August 30, 2007

1984: The Year That Wasn't

I probably would never have come across this book if I hadn't had to read it in high school. But I'm glad I did, because it has been one of the most influential things I have ever read. It's an extraordinarily important book, and if you only re-read one book from your high school experience, make it this one.

This is the book that George Orwell wrote as he knew he was dying. It's filled with a driving sense of purpose, a sense of warning. Orwell wrote us to warn us of what the world would look like, if we ever lost the Long War.

The Long War probably isn't what you're thinking, although what we call the Cold War was part of it. The Long War is the eternal struggle of enlightened individualism against totalitarianism, liberty versus tyranny. 1984 spells out in painful details the cost of defeat. It also shows us, obliquely, how to avoid going there.

In the world of Winston Smith, liberty had long since gone down to defeat. The Party ruled all. It governed you from the moment you opened your eyes in the morning to the moment you closed them again at night, and held you to account for what you mumbled in your dreams. If the contents of your thoughts weren't sufficiently orthodox, the Ministry of Love would fix you. We get to see the entire process through to its horrific conclusion. Winston Smith goes from Party functionary to rebel, rebel to prisoner, and finally prisoner to ... what? In a real sense he was always a prisoner. His final transformation was a final realization of that fact. He is, at the end, a completely broken man.

But the world doesn't have to end up like this. That's the key message here.

Our best line of defense at home? A healthy suspicion of those we keep in power. My current blog tagline as I write this states my position perfectly: "In God we trust. Everyone else, keep your hands where I can see 'em." We the citizens have a duty to stay informed, and keep our elected leaders' feet to the fire. Most of them are good, honest people. But even so we dare not trust them with too much power. This means that the government will never be as efficient as it could be. This means that there are things the government won't be able to do. We simply have to accept that as the price of freedom.

But it goes beyond that. For example, this is the reason that I really don't like hate crimes legislation. I do not like the idea of criminalizing the content of a man's thoughts. It is irrelevant to me that those thoughts are indefensible or uncivilized. Because eventually someone will work their way around to criminalizing mine. It's far, far easier to stop this thing from snowballing now, than to try to stop it once the Powers That Be get used to the idea of legislating what you're allowed to think.

It's also why I really don't like political correctness. Mind you, I do think that a proper gentleman should self-censor his speech. I do not always do a good job of that. Some words have no place at all in polite communication, and if you cannot express yourself without vulgarity then your vocabulary is sadly lacking. That said ... There are substantive conversations we cannot have today, because they are not PC. We all know what we are not allowed to say, and about whom we are not allowed to speak. Try to have a serious conversation about a taboo topic, and you're branded a racist, a sexist, or worse. This is distinctly unhelpful, and does no one any real good. Pretending that an issue does not exist does nothing to help the situation.

But forewarned is forearmed: we do not go forward in this struggle unguided. And because an Englishman looked ahead and told us what he saw, we have a better chance to avoid the abyss.

Give it a read if you haven't done so lately. It'll make you think.

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