Nineteen Eighty-Four at 70: What Orwell Got Right

This summer, George Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Four turns 70 years old, and that anniversary has prompted a surfeit of articles analyzing the book and its continuing relevance to our age.

There is no doubt that the book is one of the most consequential political novels ever written and ought to be on the reading list of every conservative -- not because Orwell was himself a conservative (he remained a man of the Left until his death), nor because the dystopian world that Orwell described turned out to be prophetic.

“The image of a boot stamping across the human face," in Orwell's memorable phrase, is an accurate depiction of present-day North Korea or China, but is not really an apt description of the U.S. or Western Europe, societies that have fallen into the kind of soft despotism described by Alexis de Tocqueville, but well short of the dystopian nightmare foreseen in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

However, the novel remains prescient in its depiction of two key elements of modern-day political correctness conceived of and promoted by the Progressive Left: the war on language and the war on memory

In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell focuses on an individual living in "Oceania," a socialist society comprising the present-day nations of England and the Americas. In the novel, Oceania is abandoning standard English, which is referred to as “Oldspeak,” and is adopting “Newspeak,” a limited vocabulary designed to restrict thought.

Orwell understood that words enable thought and thought enables action. If there is no word for something, it makes it hard to think about it. This is an ancient insight -- the Bible speaks reverently of “The Word.” 

Orwell tells us that:

“It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought… should be literally unthinkable, at least insofar as thought is dependent on words.”

On the college campuses, the progressives have adopted a form of Newspeak with the identical goal -- to get rid of heretical thoughts. Thus, students are protected by “safe spaces,” works of art that might cause discomfort are preceded by “trigger warnings,” and prohibited statements are referred to as “microagressions,” and “hate speech.” Make the latter phrase a compound word (hatespeech) and it has an unmistakably Orwellian cadence.

Starting in academia, politically correct speech has now infected the media, the arts, tech companies, and corporations.

The protagonist in Nineteen Eighty-Four, Winston Smith, works for the ironically named “Ministry of Truth,” which is engaged in the practice of constantly editing history to conform to the current party line.  People and places are changed, erased, or added as needed. “Who controls the past controls the future,” Orwell explained, “who controls the present controls the past.”

The erasing of America's past, the renaming of holidays, and the defacing and elimination of statues -- the cultural vandalism that proceeds on a daily basis --

Is all part of an effort to conform America's history to the Progressive party line.

This is how Orwell described it:

Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book has been rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street and building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And that process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.

“An endless present.” This is what progressive dogma demands: and, by extension, a rejection of wisdom -- the accumulation of human experience. The progressive cannot abide the traditional, because it stands in the way of “progress,” however that is defined at the moment. The impulse is narcissistic -- we are always morally superior to our descendants -- and ultimately totalitarian.

Thus, while it may appear to be a stretch to apply a novel written as an indictment of the USSR under Stalin to the current regime of political correctness, it is not.

“Political correctness is communist propaganda writ small,” social critic Theodore Dalrymple has observed.

He added:

“In my study of communist societies, I came to the conclusion that the purpose of communist propaganda was not to persuade or convince, nor to inform, but to humiliate; and therefore, the less it corresponded to reality the better. When people are forced to remain silent when they are being told the most obvious lies, or even worse when they are forced to repeat the lies themselves, they lose once and for all their sense of probity. To assent to obvious lies is to co-operate with evil, and in some small way to become evil oneself. One's standing to resist anything is thus eroded, and even destroyed. A society of emasculated liars is easy to control. I think if you examine political correctness, it has the same effect and is intended to.”

This is the lesson of Nineteen Eighty-Four and why it remains relevant today.

You can follow Nicholas J. Kaster on Twitter.

This summer, George Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Four turns 70 years old, and that anniversary has prompted a surfeit of articles analyzing the book and its continuing relevance to our age.

There is no doubt that the book is one of the most consequential political novels ever written and ought to be on the reading list of every conservative -- not because Orwell was himself a conservative (he remained a man of the Left until his death), nor because the dystopian world that Orwell described turned out to be prophetic.

“The image of a boot stamping across the human face," in Orwell's memorable phrase, is an accurate depiction of present-day North Korea or China, but is not really an apt description of the U.S. or Western Europe, societies that have fallen into the kind of soft despotism described by Alexis de Tocqueville, but well short of the dystopian nightmare foreseen in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

However, the novel remains prescient in its depiction of two key elements of modern-day political correctness conceived of and promoted by the Progressive Left: the war on language and the war on memory

In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell focuses on an individual living in "Oceania," a socialist society comprising the present-day nations of England and the Americas. In the novel, Oceania is abandoning standard English, which is referred to as “Oldspeak,” and is adopting “Newspeak,” a limited vocabulary designed to restrict thought.

Orwell understood that words enable thought and thought enables action. If there is no word for something, it makes it hard to think about it. This is an ancient insight -- the Bible speaks reverently of “The Word.” 

Orwell tells us that:

“It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought… should be literally unthinkable, at least insofar as thought is dependent on words.”

On the college campuses, the progressives have adopted a form of Newspeak with the identical goal -- to get rid of heretical thoughts. Thus, students are protected by “safe spaces,” works of art that might cause discomfort are preceded by “trigger warnings,” and prohibited statements are referred to as “microagressions,” and “hate speech.” Make the latter phrase a compound word (hatespeech) and it has an unmistakably Orwellian cadence.

Starting in academia, politically correct speech has now infected the media, the arts, tech companies, and corporations.

The protagonist in Nineteen Eighty-Four, Winston Smith, works for the ironically named “Ministry of Truth,” which is engaged in the practice of constantly editing history to conform to the current party line.  People and places are changed, erased, or added as needed. “Who controls the past controls the future,” Orwell explained, “who controls the present controls the past.”

The erasing of America's past, the renaming of holidays, and the defacing and elimination of statues -- the cultural vandalism that proceeds on a daily basis --

Is all part of an effort to conform America's history to the Progressive party line.

This is how Orwell described it:

Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book has been rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street and building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And that process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.

“An endless present.” This is what progressive dogma demands: and, by extension, a rejection of wisdom -- the accumulation of human experience. The progressive cannot abide the traditional, because it stands in the way of “progress,” however that is defined at the moment. The impulse is narcissistic -- we are always morally superior to our descendants -- and ultimately totalitarian.

Thus, while it may appear to be a stretch to apply a novel written as an indictment of the USSR under Stalin to the current regime of political correctness, it is not.

“Political correctness is communist propaganda writ small,” social critic Theodore Dalrymple has observed.

He added:

“In my study of communist societies, I came to the conclusion that the purpose of communist propaganda was not to persuade or convince, nor to inform, but to humiliate; and therefore, the less it corresponded to reality the better. When people are forced to remain silent when they are being told the most obvious lies, or even worse when they are forced to repeat the lies themselves, they lose once and for all their sense of probity. To assent to obvious lies is to co-operate with evil, and in some small way to become evil oneself. One's standing to resist anything is thus eroded, and even destroyed. A society of emasculated liars is easy to control. I think if you examine political correctness, it has the same effect and is intended to.”

This is the lesson of Nineteen Eighty-Four and why it remains relevant today.

You can follow Nicholas J. Kaster on Twitter.