There are some books you should read only once, and others you should reread occasionally. George Orwell’s 1984 is one you should read repeatedly and deeply. Without it, no education is complete.
It tells the story of a man, Winston, grappling with ordinary desires for love and privacy — but in a totalitarian socialist world in which every word and even desire is subject to control and punishment by “the Party.”
1984 teaches timeless truths and shows its characters grappling with questions that do not have easy answers. The dystopia Orwell presents emerged out of the soil of a society in which little by little, inch by inch, thought by thought, and idea by idea, people forsook their liberty, their dignity, and their humanity.
Parallels between the world of Orwell’s 1984 and our own are increasingly obvious — and troubling. For one thing, we live in an ever-growing “anti-terror” surveillance state, and one that is encouraged if not openly embraced by fearful people who are, if I may be blunt, really bad at math and really lacking in perspective. Every death is a tragedy, but terrorism is far down on any list of mortality risks—and it always has been. And there is little evidence that all the surveillance and security programs added since 9/11 have caught or prevented terrorists in any significant number.
For another thing, on college campuses across the country, we are seeing disinvitations of controversial speakers, demands for “safe spaces,” and shout-downs of ideas deemed heretical — proof that the open and rigorous exchange of ideas does not come easily and must be defended.
The campus thought police
In their Atlantic cover story, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt explain and explore how higher education is fast becoming a place where students expect not to be faced with or to contend with controversial ideas but to be protected from them. Commentators such as American Enterprise Institute scholar Christina Hoff Summers have drawn unflattering comparisons between Orwell’s Junior Anti-Sex League and those controlling campus discussions today. The subtle change from “these ideas are incorrect as matters of logic and evidence” to “it is immoral to even subject these ideas to rigorous inquiry” threatens to subject the liberal arts and sciences to a thought police.
The way the characters in 1984 are “conditioned” once their subversive activities are found out turns this novel from interesting dystopian fiction to an absolutely terrifying classic. Mere obedience is not enough for the Party officials. They can only be satisfied, if that’s the right word, once they completely occupy the thoughts and wants of their subjects.
An obedient objector is still a potentially dangerous revolutionary. Dissent — anything other than wholehearted, brainwashed obedience — is intolerable. The humanity of Winston is completely abolished, and in a fate worse than death, his resistance is crushed and he comes to love Big Brother.
On this, the 68th anniversary of 1984’s publication, it is perhaps worthwhile to take a few minutes and consider whether we have unconsciously adopted the three slogans of the Party — War Is Peace, Freedom Is Slavery, Ignorance Is Strength. In our unthinking rush for “safety” of all kinds, I’m afraid that in some ways, we have.