Caring for Words, V: Orwell or Huxley?

The term “Orwellian” is used often enough, usually with some sense of dictatorial or centralized social control maintained through propaganda, misinformation, and language restriction, augmented by ubiquitous surveillance and brutal punishment of nonconformers. “Orwellian,” like “Nazi,” is commonly employed to indicate social conditions not only indisputably bad, but as bad as they can get. Americans, in particular, are forever wary of limits on expression, though often with some reservations about expression of content they disagree with. “Don’t tell me what to say or do,” we say in unison, and assure ourselves in the same words – but with no hint of irony: “I think for myself.”

Yet what if social control is more readily achieved – indeed, has to some degree already been achieved – not by telling people what to say or do, but by giving the masses what they want? What happens to the practices of attention required for careful reading in a world of infinite distraction? Is a common narrative possible when there are two hundred cable channels, a news source for every wavelength in the political spectrum, and an unlimited array of websites to choose from? What sense of history remains when all our electronically mediated stories are refracted through the lens of current prejudices? What if George Orwell wrote a more influential novel, but Aldous Huxley was more prescient?

“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egotism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that our fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that our desire will ruin us.”

  • -Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death
  • “We dwell in a present-tense culture that somehow, significantly, decided to employ the telling expression “You’re history” as a choice reprobation or insult, and thus elected to speak forgotten volumes about itself. By that standard, the forbidding dystopia of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four already belongs, both as a text and as a date, with Ur and Mycenae, while the hedonist nihilism of Huxley still beckons toward a painless, amusement-sodden, and stress-free consensus. Orwell’s was a house of horrors. He seemed to strain credulity because he posited a regime that would go to any lengths to own and possess history, to rewrite and construct it, and to inculcate it by means of coercion. Whereas Huxley, writing of a California-style utopia of 1932, rightly foresaw that any such regime could break because it could not bend. In 1988, four years after 1984, the Soviet Union scrapped its official history curriculum and announced that a newly authorized version was somewhere in the works. This was the precise moment when the regime conceded its own extinction. For true blissed-out and vacant servitude, though, you need an otherwise sophisticated society where no serious history is taught.”

  • -Christopher Hitchens, “Goodbye to All That: Why Americans Are Not Taught History.”
  • Images: First Edition covers

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