Can the thought police be far behind?
A hundred years after Orwell's birth, some of his concepts look uncomfortably familiar, while others seem overused
If George Orwell were flipping TV channels, the novelist would probably stroke his mustache in puzzlement that his catchphrase "Big Brother" was chosen to title a reality series about 10 individuals voluntarily living 24 hours a day under the scrutiny of 28 cameras.
The phrase "Big Brother," drawn from Orwell's novel about a totalitarian society, has become just another listing in "TV Guide" - and in the English dictionary - even as some claim his concepts have passed their expiration date.
On the 100th anniversary of Orwell's birth, a lively debate is ensuing over the English author's continuing relevance. While some academics say his predictions echo in the daily news of government officials distorting facts and objectives, others feel contemporary references to Orwell are often misappropriated and stale.
The topic hovered over the George Orwell Centenary Conference this month at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Mass., where eminent scholars and writers gathered to explore the man and his work.
Best known for his commentary on human freedom, Orwell is widely regarded as one of the greatest sociopolitical thinkers of the 20th century.
Yet the wholesale sprinkling of Orwell's terms in conversation and editorials may be diluting the significance of his ideas. Christopher Hitchens, an essayist and speaker at the conference, commented that "thought police" and other Orwellian phrases are often used in instances that don't deserve the connotation.
It's part of what Daphne Patai, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, says is a lack of independent thought. Orwell is too often used to bolster arguments without deeper analysis, says the author of "The Orwell Mystique: A Study in Male Ideology." "Independent thinking is the only thing that will get us out of the ideological messes that we're in."
Still, many say that current events - including Saddam Hussein's brutal regime in Iraq and America's homeland security legislation - eerily resemble elements of Orwell's dystopia, and that Orwellian concepts help shed light on the underbelly of 21st century politics.
"These are not historic considerations. They are alarmingly contemporary," said Mr. Hitchens, who wrote "Why Orwell Matters" last year. Seeing Iraq through the lens of Orwell is illuminating, Hitchens said. Although the country is richly diverse and multiethnic, the world media portray it as purely Arab. An attack on Iraq is thus erroneously seen as an affront to all Arabs.
Orwell's exploration of how the media disseminate highly managed truths and context-free news is helpful, some academics and journalists say, in understanding today's media coverage.
"The Iraq war has produced its own rich crop of Newspeak," wrote columnist Geoffrey Wheatcroft in The Guardian earlier this month. "But the choicest of all is the phrase 'weapons of mass destruction.' Even the most credulous supporters of Tony Blair's war are beginning to see they were sold a pup."
Orwell's ideas, while unsettlingly prescient about some foreign affairs, also echo loudly in the US, some scholars say. Civil libertarians are alarmed at the invasiveness of the Patriot Act, and are alarmed at a possible Patriot Act II, which would further expand government surveillance. In his works, Orwell recognized that "trading freedom for security is a death trap," Hitchens says, calling homeland security a "seductive temptation."
And yet, the surveillance technology Orwell envisioned is already here - on street corners, in libraries, and along office hallways - says columnist Ian Williams. "When Orwell invented telescreens, he was taking a leap in the dark about technology," Mr. Williams said. "Now they exist."
While these are legitimate threats to a liberal society, the conditions are a far cry from Orwell's cautionary vision, other experts argue. Sociologist Dennis Wrong said the totalitarian label is widely misused. Repressive regimes in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East are "hardly equivalent" to those of the former Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, he told the conference.
"Not every tyranny and despotism deserves to be called totalitarian. Anything antidemocratic has the worst possible image linked to it," Mr. Wrong said. "Totalitarianism doesn't let you have a cup of tea. It penetrates every aspect of life."
Yet in North Korea, where citizens breathe propaganda, some counter, the conditions are irrefutably Orwellian. "It's the only time in my life when I've tired of the word 'Orwellian,' " Hitchens said of his visit to North Korea. "The shops had no goods, the newspapers had no news."