This weekend, I took advantage of some free time this weekend to revisit this classic book by the late author George Orwell (1903-1950). I had been thinking about it for some time as I watched news to remain aware of the continuing Covid-19 pandemic and developments in China, in particular Beijing’s efforts to place Hong Kong firmly in its grip. North Korea increased tensions with South Korea by termination diplomatic relations and destroying the joint liaison office used for meetings between world powers and Pyongyang. The world seems to be at the brink of anarchy as right-wing figures rise to power and in the process take their nations in a different course away from progressivism. In some nations, the state becomes the face of nation and party rules over the individual. Essentially, in the years since this book was written, we have seen the rise of what Orwell called Big Brother.
When he wrote this book in 1949, I do not believe that Orwell had any idea that this book would become the blueprint for the totalitarian police states we see in existence today. This book became so popular that not only is it assigned reading for many students but it was also adapted for the silver screen in 1984 by Michael Radford. The film of the same name was released on March 22, 1985 and starred John Hurt and the late Richard Burton. Since that time, it has remained a masterpiece about the watchful eyes of the government and is often cited during discussions about invasion of privacy and overreach by the government.
The main character is Winston Smith, a party worker in the Records Department within the Ministry of Truth, whose job it is to re-write the past according to Big Brother’s doctrine. He is married but separated from his wife Katherine who appears briefly in the story and always in the past. He suffers from an ulcer that will not heal and spends his days re-writing the past using the new language Newspeak. He has no life outside of the party and his daily existence is a repetition of the prior day. Winston does his job with no emotion and deep down he does not believe in Big Brother. His co-workers Syme and Parsons tow the party line and make every effort to show allegiance to the state.
By chance, Winston meets a young lady in the department named Julia. At first she is elusive but the two eventually become close, too close for comfort according to Big Brother. They seek refuge at the residence of Mr. Charrington and believe their meetings are discreet. Both are committed in their belief that Big Brother is a fraud and that their way of life cannot continue to exist in that form. The pair are called into the office of a party higher-up named O’Brien and in his presence they confess their true feelings. O’Brien invites them to the Brotherhood and they leave with strict instructions as to how to move forward. But the main requirement is that they read the book by Emmanuel Goldstein, the radical figure who remains the target of the “Two Minutes of Hate” program aimed at discrediting his reputation. Winston eventually gets his hands on the book and during a tryst with Julia, begins to read the book to her. But unbeknownst to them, things were about to take a dark turn for the worst and Big Brother was about to make his presence felt.
The final part of the book is without question the best. As O’Brien’s true role becomes clear, the reality of Big Brother’s endgame becomes hauntingly clear. The party’s slogan that War in Peace, Freedom is Slavery and Ignorance is Strength, are reinforced sadistically by O’Brien. His goal is get Winston to see what Big Brother truly is but to do that he must break him down and rebuild again. Today we would call it “re-education” as it was known in Communist China, North Vietnam and other state-controlled nations. The full party doctrine comes flowing out of O’Brien’s mouth and there is one line in particular that sums up the party’s stance:
“Individually, no member of the Party owns anything, except petty personal belongings. Collectively, the Party owns everything in Oceania, because it controls everything and disposes of the products as it thinks fit.”
Winston still struggles to understand what Big Brother really is and resists submitting to O’Brien’s will. But he soon begins to break down and O’Brien delivers this mental blow which is the crux of the police state:
“Does Big Brother exist?” “Of course he exists. The Party exists. Big Brother is the embodiment of the Party.” “Does he exist in the same way as I exist?” “You do not exist,” said O’Brien.
The genius of the book is that we don’t know exactly who the master controller is for there is no one person that assumes the title. Rather, it is a cohesive system of observation and persecution that reminds the citizens of the loss of their rights, freedoms and privacy. As technology advances and the control of society is increased, we can look back to Orwell’s timeless literary work as a premonition of what is to come. Some countries have already adopted what is contained within these pages. North Korea instantly comes to mind. Orwell’s classic is also the reason why those of us who live in democracies should cherish the freedoms that we do have because if we do not, we may find ourselves ending up like Winston and Julia.
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