Is Donald Trump the new Big Brother? That’s what everyone’s been asking, after Kellyanne Conway argued with NBC’s Chuck Todd about “alternative facts” after the inauguration. Journalists likened her expression to Orwell’s totalitarian government in “1984,” in which the Party can destroy facts—whole lives—with one fell swoop of their propaganda machine.
But as Tom Nichols adroitly noted for The Federalist yesterday, Orwell’s dismal and sordid picture of totalitarian decay is not quite right for our current situation. Yes, our government has a surveillance state that some fear encroaches on Orwellian territory. There’s been some confusing—and outright wrong—representation of facts as of late.
But the brutal totalitarianism of “1984” isn’t the only sort of totalitarianism we should fear: there’s a more potent and applicable example in Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World.” In Huxley’s novel, totalitarianism is a soft and supple thing. Sated with hedonism and distraction, citizens aren’t even aware how far they’ve fallen into the clutches of their autocratic masters. The moment someone has an original or rebellious thought, there’s a drug, catchy tune, or sex to distract them. This is much more indicative of the state of our society, in which every manner of distraction—from the Internet to the television to our increasing opioid crisis—appeals to the average citizen.
Additionally, the tone of Huxley’s world seems more applicable to our own. In the first three pages of Orwell’s work, we’re barraged with a litany of doleful adjectives: everything is “cold,” “gritty,” “meagre,” “rough,” “harsh,” “grimy,” “sordid,” and “colorless.” Want is everywhere. Scarcity is palpable.
But in today’s America—despite the difficulties and poverty that are, indeed, prevalent—there’s a polish on everything. Consumerism lends a sort of glitter to the air, a distracted and addicted sheen to the average person’s eyes. This is Huxley’s world, translated to ours.
We Have Embraced Weak Ties, and Lost Real Community
In “Brave New World,” there is plenty of “stuff,” but real community or relationship is nonexistent. People’s lives are entirely guided by weak ties, as the government seeks to quell any strong passion that might lead people into private meaning or happiness. Sex is fine, so long as it isn’t monogamous. Friendship is allowable, so long as it does not guide its subjects into deep subjects or thoughts. The moment anyone is tempted into gloominess, there’s sex or music or drugs to divert him.
Thus, the government—which is still controlling and panopticon-like in its dealings—can slink along in secret, monitoring its subjects without any fear of retribution or anger on the part of its subjects. This is “Big Brother,” but without the scowl.
Trump himself does not seem powerful enough, or brilliant enough, to institute such a rule. Nor need he: if we have a surveillance state, or a propaganda-like press, it existed before he came into office. Perhaps the most positive turn of events we’ve seen since November 2016 is the realization on the part of many progressives that an unbridled federal government and unaccountable media are bad. They may seem pleasant when “your man” (or woman) is in power—but the instant that person leaves office, the uncurbed power they leave in their wake is a frightening and troubling thing.
American Citizens Still Have Independence and Power
Unlike the subjects of “1984,” we are not powerless. Unlike the subjects of “Brave New World,” we are not clueless. That gives us much, indeed, to be thankful for. We have the ability to see authoritarian or overbearing strains in our government and do something about it.
But another thing “Brave New World” makes clear is that a culture given over to hedonism may commit suicide through its own lack of initiative or consciousness. As Nichols notes in his piece,
“There is no need for Big Brother when people willingly withdraw from public life. … we are killing our own sense of industry and independence on both the right and the left—yes, across the American political spectrum—and thus are far more at risk of sliding into the affluent but illiberal ‘Brave New World’ than the regimented and disciplined world of Oceania.”
This is a troubling thought we must confront head-on. How do we combat lethargy and apathy among ourselves? How do we keep alive the vision of liberty and community that’s been handed down to us?
This involves much more than mere political involvement or outcry. It’s not just about what we do, but how we do it: the spirit that animates our actions. A young person who gets involved in “Brave New World’s” government is likely to get sucked into its machinations, its bureaucracy, its ideology. To stand apart from the fray and demand something more requires being something more.
In this instance, ironically enough, both “1984” and “Brave New World” have a powerful, united message for their readers. They remind us of the power of the past, and of the power of words.
‘1984’ Displays the Power of Ancient Things
Not far into “1984,” we discover Winston’s secret rebellion: he has bought a book. And not just any book—an antique diary. Orwell describes Winston’s writing thus:
The pen was an archaic instrument, seldom used even for signatures, and he had procured one, furtively and with some difficulty, simply because of a feeling that the beautiful creamy paper deserved to be written on with a real nib instead of being scratched with an ink pencil. Actually he was not used to writing by hand. Apart from very short notes, it was usual to dictate everything into the speakwrite, which was of course impossible for this present purpose.
Orwell’s bibliophilic description captures an idea that has animated many in American culture as of late: there’s a romance in the nature of physical things. There’s a romance in our interactions with them. In the midst of his sterile, cold, saddened world, it is the simple act of putting words onto paper that constitutes Winston’s most powerful rebellion.
Not much later, Winston has a powerful dream. It brings to mind a vision of beauty and belonging that is entirely antithetical to Winston’s current life: “Tragedy, he perceived, belonged to the ancient time, to a time when there was still privacy, love, and friendship, and when the members of a family stood by one another without needing to know the reason.” As the dream fades, writes Orwell, he “woke up with the word ‘Shakespeare’ on his lips.”
‘Brave New World’ Depicts The Power Of Virtue
That’s not the only time Shakespeare is referenced in a dystopian work. Indeed, “Brave New World” is full of quotes and references to the British playwright. Its title is derived from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”:
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t.
Near the beginning of the novel, two Londoners venture from their hedonist paradise to a New Mexico “Savage Reservation.” There, they meet John: a young man who has spent every moment reading Shakespeare, the Bible, and other ancient works.
These works are banned among “civilized” worlds. But John’s mind and character have been inescapably shaped by them. He calls himself an “unhappy gentleman” because he cannot reach his full potential in a world that rejects him. All the nobility of love, service, deference, and bravery reside in his heart. But sadly, both at the reservation and back in London, his attempts at noble, gentlemanly living are thwarted at every turn. There is no room in this modern life for such old-fashioned virtues.
When John falls in love with Lenina, he seeks to woo her with all the passionate romance of a Romeo. Oblivious to such virtuous intentions, she thwarts his courtship with her own brazen, lustful advances.
The novel ends with the “Savage” hanging himself. It’s a tragedy—just as Winston’s story is—because there is no room in dystopia for nobility: for the virtues and relationships of the “ancient time,” as Orwell puts it.
Fear Disenchantment as Much as Totalitarianism
If we’re likely to fall prey to anything, it is this: lack of virtue, gentility, and enchantment. And if we lose these things, we lose all the rest—we lose the independence and integrity that constitute members of a strong, accountable republic.
For Winston and the Savage, the enchantment of ancient works and words drew them to a better, more noble life. It beckoned to them, beyond their own bleak reality. It gave them strength to act with passion and conviction.
In both cases, it was books—ancient volumes with tangible presences, with enchanting beauty and winsome words—that spoke to them from their place of emptiness. We too can find comfort and conviction in these objects.
Our Society Endlessly Seeks the New
Our society, like the Savage’s, endlessly pursues the new. We’re obsessed with obtaining the latest iPhone model, the newest sports car, the most exciting new Netflix series. In response, our attention spans shorten; our interest in the serious, the noble, the ancient begins to decline.
Our culture is missing something: something deep, something poignant. Something a bit romantic, even (in the old-fashioned sense of the word). Often, when I read new books, I’m struck by their dimness. The leanness of their meaning, their lack of magic, nuance, and enchantment. As Richard Beck has written in the past, we live in a disenchanted era. Nowhere does that show up more obviously, perhaps, than in our books.
So a return to the past—to Shakespeare and the Bible, to writing with ink on physical paper—is, in many ways, a chance to rekindle the fire of enchantment. The Savage had a moral imagination, a passion. But his society tries to quench this enchantment—and tragically, succeeded.
We Should All Seek to Be ‘Savage’
Perhaps for all of us, the challenge is to stay “savage” in a world that wants to tame our passions and poetry. The challenge is to keep alive the noble fierceness that should constitute citizens who are passionate and principled.
Archaic and ancient things are often scoffed at among the world’s authorities and tastemakers. “Privacy, love, and friendship,” gentlemanliness and virtue and nobility—these are things we need, now more than ever.
So read “1984.” Read “Brave New World.” And don’t just beware the machinations of the totalitarian state. Beware the disenchantment of our age. See what true rebellion ought to look like—and seek to be “savage.”