Because he had a moral perspective about so many things and because he did such a good job of giving voice to it in hundreds of newspaperessays, George Orwell is one of my heroes. His words were a regular rallying cry for his readers, even when they didn't agree with him (which was often). Orwell's great feat was helping them to clarify their own commitments.
But despite his prowess as an opinion writer, Orwell is best known today for his dystopian novels1984 and Animal Farm. Having grappled with authoritarianism on both the Left and the Right during the Spanish Civil War (which he also wrote about in Homage to Catalonia), Orwell distilled Ideology’s dehumanizing impact on individuals in his unforgettable visions of the future.
For example, it is Orwell who worried about the ideological state’s attempts to manage its citizens through “thought control” via mass media propaganda, to foster contempt for objective truth, to establish cults of personality, and to create a suffocating climate of suspicion, self-censorship and fear. Above all, Orwell cautioned that even the best of ideological intentions can be corrupted by our animal frailties.
Today, given the manipulating effects of social media, the deepening Right/Left propaganda and enforcement divides, and the alarm over how our personal information is being used against us by data brokers and governmental agencies, it is hardly surprising that Orwell’s novels are more popular now than they were when first published in the 1940’s.
Aldous Huxley, another Brit, was Orwell’s contemporary.
Huxley’s most famous book was Brave New World Revisited, his view of a future that was equally disturbing but in different ways. While both Huxley and Orwell saw future governments overwhelming their citizens’ autonomy and annihilating their free will, Huxley highlighted the intoxicating effects of pleasure (instead of fear) to keep people docile and under control. To accomplish this, Huxley’s World State hands out a drug called soma to sedate its citizens into feeling better when they get restless. Soma created pleasant hallucinations and distracted people whenever their negative (more freedom-loving) emotions begin to intrude.
In our era of 24/7 entertainment “on demand,” of non-stop drama from our “news” outlets, and of a constant barrage of social media updates, “likes” and tweets, none of us ever has to pay much attention to what is happening in the so-called “real world” or the roles we should be playing in it. There is always a new “prompt” from our phones, watches or “smart” speakers to provide us with a refuge from reality. The soma of near constant screen distraction and “the internet of things” has also become a fixture of our daily lives in the four score years since Brave New World was published.
Like it or not, we are already living in some of Orwell’s and Huxley’s future. In one, we fear manipulation by Big Brother, our tribal hostilities and alienation. In the other, we’re lulled into near constant distraction. And both are sabbotaging our engagement with the challenges and opportunities that are all around us. In a week that saw impeachment hearings in the U.S. and a violent siege of student activists in Hong Kong, it's been easy to fret about democracy's fragile state, to see the self-righteous power of ideology on both the Left and the Right, and to want to escape from it all in the comfort of a warm, distracting bath.
The cartoons at the top of this newsletter were drawn by Stuart McMillen, with text from Neil Postman’s satirical Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. As we all bounce between Orwell's and Huxley's "futures" in the coming week, here's the rest of "their comic strip" to help you bring wherever we find ourselves into uncomfortable focus.
I'll see you next Sunday.
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