Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Nineteen Eighty-Four

I did my English Literature O-level in 1984, and almost inevitably we ended up studying George Orwell's book. It portrays a totalitarian, controlling society, echoing and developing what Orwell saw taking place in Soviet Russia at the time he wrote it (1948).

For much of the thirty years since, I've been under the influence of Postman, who in Amusing Ourselves to Death, argued that Aldous Huxley's near contemporary vision of the future, Brave New World, was more characteristic of our world. In Huxley's world, nobody burns books - because nobody reads them anyway. Incidentally, I'm interested to see that Steven Spielberg is working on a TV series adaptation of Huxley's book.

However, in the last few months, the thought has been growing that I ought to read Orwell's book again. Too many things that I've noticed about our culture have echoes of Airstrip One - and, more disturbingly, the shifts in culture are ones that society has blithely accepted, not ones that have been imposed.

The idea that the government should have the right to listen into everyone's phone conversations, read everyone's emails, know everything about their web browsing behaviour, is the latest and most relevant example. This private information should simply not be the domain of government - but not only is the party of government intent on doing this (it was reported as though Theresa May was almost gleeful that the Conservatives now had an overall majority - I have to say she reminds me strongly of Dolores Umbridge ...) but there are plenty of people who think that this has to be done for the sake of security.

More than the simple Big Brother aspect, there's also the thought control side of it, and here the risk to freedom comes from the side of liberalism. If we trace the path of marriage equality, what it has involved is a newspeak-style redefinition of words, followed by the assertion that people not only have to accept this, but participate in it - a business is not permitted to exercise freedom of conscience in running how it wishes to, but may be discriminating if it refuses to do something on grounds of conscience. The law insists: "You have to publicly agree with me, no public space is permitted for dissent." The common argument voiced is: this is analogous to a company discriminating on grounds of race, and therefore wrong. To which there are several responses. The first is to ask whether this is a fair analogy (I'd argue not, the bakers were not refusing to serve them, and would have made and decorated a cake for them). The second is to ask that regardless of whether it is right, doesn't the owner of the business have the freedom to choose how to run his business? If society regards his views as offensive, they will stop buying from him.

What is most scary to me about all this is that people have simply handed over their freedoms, apparently completely unaware of what they are giving up. A business not free to run as it chooses. People prepared to allow the government to supervise all their electronic communication. Yep, that's okay.

Francis Schaeffer saw it coming, of course. He argues, in How Should We Then Live? 

History indicates that at a certain point of economic breakdown people cease being concerned with individual liberties and are ready to accept regimentation. The danger is obviously even greater when the two main values so many people have are personal peace and affluence.
 In other words, the desire to have the feeling of getting richer and remaining secure are the two drivers - people will give up any freedoms to maintain those two things. It's pretty disturbing for those of us who thought that the end of the Soviets would see the end of the push towards the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

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