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April 21, 2013


Philosophy Day again today – Stop here if uninterested. Years ago I made a pact with myself that I would read 1984 every year from the first time I read it. I kept my end of the bargain for several years and then breached my agreement with myself. I just recently renewed my bargain. One needs to understand the horrors that could be awaiting us if we discard our humanity and democracy, and Orwell’s 1984 brings that realization home in the starkest of terms.

As Erich Fromm notes, “Orwell’s 1984 is the expression of a mood, and it is a warning. The mood it expresses is that of near despair about the future of man, and the warning is that unless the course of history changes, men all over the world will lose their most human qualities, will become soulless automatons, and will not even be aware of it.”

Orwell’s bleak outlook for humanity did not come from nowhere. (Utopia means nowhere.) Sir Thomas More’s “Utopia” was the first expression of a new form of writing which developed after the Renaissance and utopia was a name generically applied to all other similar works. More in his book severely criticized his own society, its irrationality and injustice, contrasting it with a picture he drew of a society that, though imperfect, solved most of the human problems which were insoluble in his then current society. He laid out few principles for attaining this “Utopia,” but rather formulated such an imaginary new society to correspond with the deepest longing of man. The work is a classic.

Utopias were written for the next several hundred years following More’s superb effort, up to the 20th century. We today are best acquainted with the examples of Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s 1984. Huxley also took a dour and negative view of humanity’s potential for survival; indeed both his effort and that of Orwell have been called “negative utopias.” Their themes emphasize the mood of hopelessness and powerlessness which pervades the society of modern man just when, paradoxically, (through automated production techniques and rapidly expanding technological and scientific achievement, among other things) we should be self-confident and hopeful for our collective future.

(Of course, Orwell’s 1984 was published in 1949, barely four years after atomic bombs were used in war and while Stalin, now also armed with atomic weaponry, was creating political havoc in Eastern Europe. Reviewers of 1984 feel that these two realities bore heavily on Orwell’s negative outlook for the future of humanity as expressed in his book.)

Fast forward to today – We now or soon will be able to live up to the hopes and realities of  More’s Utopia. We have the means and the skills to produce food and goods and render services to one another in quantities no utopian writer could have ever imagined. We have means of communication and transportation and understandings in the life sciences that are matching similar imaginations of science fiction writers. We are poised, finally, to leave behind the moral callousness of war and fulfill the deepest longings of humanity, both materially and spiritually, to leave behind the illusion that wars are fought in the interests of peace and democracy, or that they are necessary when technical progress can give any country more wealth than territorial conquest. Present day globalization could morph into a one-world vision of a truly united mono-state. Such a vision is perhaps beyond utopian.

Why can’t this happen? It’s the same old story – fights over the spoils, egos new and bruised, jingo patriotism, ancient prejudices, greed in all of its manifestations etc. Some call it “human nature,” a convenient definition which I categorically reject.

Altruism is not genetic; it is a learned attribute. It can be employed in fashioning a society as well as the present hit-or-miss attempts of isms, divvying up the economic spoils, hatred based on past wrongs (real or imagined), race, gender, class distinction etc. A peaceful, prosperous, healthy and happy world was not possible when many of these utopian writers put quill to parchment or ink to paper; it is possible now. Why not have one?

Here’s why not. Doublethink. Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them. The word was coined into the lexicon by Orwell in 1984. It is practiced not only in China and Russia, as we are trained to believe, but in this country as well. We, all of us, for our own reasons and at times we choose, say things we don’t believe and don’t believe things that we say. Orwell takes it a step further, namely (per Fromm) “that in a successful manipulation of the mind the person is no longer saying the opposite of what he thinks, but he thinks the opposite of what is true. . . If he has surrendered his independence and his integrity completely, if he experiences himself as a thing which belongs either to the state, the party or the corporation, then two plus two are five, or “Slavery is Freedom,” and he feels free because there is no longer any awareness of the discrepancy between truth and falsehood. Specifically this applies to ideologies.”

An example of the foregoing is found where the Inquisitors of the church believed that they tortured their prisoners out of Christian love. (Apparently a stretch on the rack is good for the soul, if not body.) We see similar examples of doublethink (as indicated in the above quotation) in political ideology. We have a Romney, a McConnell, a Cantor and a Paul who make public statements in the interest of their ideology that are so far beyond the pale, or so inconsistent, or both,  as to earn each and all of them doublethink status. I cannot speculate whether these people have achieved the Orwellian status of being so far gone that they are “no longer aware of the discrepancy between truth and falsehood.” They probably have not arrived at such a fork in the road just yet, but they are headed in that direction. As of now they know the difference perfectly well – and choose one or the other to fit their ideological situation on the spot without regard to its authenticity. Politicians call it flip-flopping. You and I call it lying.

The three slogans of the Party in Orwell’s 1984 were as follows: War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength. Such “slogans” sound far out to you and me, but just how much further out are they than some of the dogmas of the Republican party today, such as in trickledown: If you give money to the rich, the poor will prosper. Or Wall Street regulation: We don’t need regulation, we are self-regulating. (The recent near miss worldwide depression was apparently just a mirage.) Or on taxes: If you cut taxes on the rich, the economy will pick up. (There’s no connection between tax rates and the health of our economy, and these lying sloganeers know it.) Are we slipping into an Orwellian state where, blinded by ideology, hatred and/or greed, we have lost our integrity and independence to a point where the end justifies the means, or where the end IS the means (as in 1984)? Let’s hope not. Utopia is now feasible and not just a dream. Let’s work toward that end and make the dream come true.  GERALD E E


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