Series: Oh Say Can You See? IV: The Rise of Big Brother
Part 1: 1984 Revisited
Dealing with the regimes of both Hitler and Stalin in the 1940s left Americans and Brits in horror at the idea of totalitarianism.
The term ‘an authoritarian regime’ denotes a state in which the single power holder – an individual ‘dictator’, a committee or a junta or an otherwise small group of political elite – monopolizes political power. However, a totalitarian regime attempts to control virtually all aspects of the social life including economy, education, art, science, private life and morals of citizens. “The officially proclaimed ideology penetrates into the deepest reaches of societal structure and the totalitarian government seeks to completely control the thoughts and actions of its citizens .”
So it’s not surprising that in 1944 British author George Orwell capitalized on this paranoia with plans for a dystopian (that’s the opposite of “utopian”) science fiction novel that would tell the chilling story of a bleak totalitarian future for Planet Earth. He completed his novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, in 1948. Here’s the original cover, as seen in the 1949 edition.
Nineteen Eighty-Four is set in Oceania, one of three inter-continental super-states that divided the world among themselves after a global war. Most of the action takes place in London, the “chief city of Airstrip One,” the Oceanic province that “had once been called England or Britain.” Posters of the Party leader, Big Brother, bearing the caption “BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU”, dominate the city, while the ubiquitous telescreen (transceiving television set [able to both transmit pictures to the viewer and take pictures to be seen by the broadcaster] ) monitors the private and public lives of the populace. The social class system of Oceania is threefold:
(I) the upper-class Inner Party, the elite ruling minority
(II) the middle-class Outer Party, and
(III) the lower-class Proles (from proletariat), who make up 85% of the population and represent the uneducated working class.
As the government, the Party controls the population with four ministries:
- the Ministry of Peace (Minipax), which deals with war,
- the Ministry of Plenty (Miniplenty), which deals with economic affairs (rationing and starvation),
- the Ministry of Love (Miniluv), which deals with law and order (torture),
- the Ministry of Truth (Minitrue), which deals with propaganda (news, entertainment, education and art)
The protagonist Winston Smith, a member of the Outer Party, works in the Ministry of Truth as an editor, revising historical records to make the past conform to the ever-changing party line and deleting references to unpersons, people who have been “vaporised”, i.e. not only killed by the state, but denied existence even in history or memory. [Wiki]
There is a lot more to the plot line, and if you’ve never read this classic sci-fi novel, you might want to seriously consider adding it to your repertoire. If you don’t want to buy an inexpensive paperback version, almost every library in the English-speaking world likely has a copy to borrow. Or you don’t even have to leave your desk to read an online ebook version for free at this link. A free online audiobook version is even available.
Not much into reading? Then how about watching on Youtube a 1954 TV adaptation of the novel from the BBC, starring Peter Cushing (Governor Tarkin in the 1977 Star Wars, for anyone too young to remember his earlier career in classic horror films)?
A “loose” U.S. film adaptation was released in 1956, but it got fairly poor ratings.
A better version, made in Britain, was actually released in the target year of the title, 1984, starring John Hurt and Richard Burton. If you happen to have Amazon Prime, you can watch it on instant streaming at no cost. Otherwise you can rent or buy it from Amazon.com .
Although there are many aspects to the plotline, perhaps the most famous factors in the book, even to those who have never read it, are the name and person of the totalitarian leader Big Brother, and the fact that his regime is using two-way tele-equipment to keep an eye on everyone in the whole society lest they stray even slightly from the ideology of the System.
Actually, it’s not even clear in the book whether Big Brother is an actual person, or a manufactured iconic head for the System around which the masses can rally. He is never seen by the masses “in person,” just as an onscreen persona. In any event, his picture shows up on posters, billboards, and video screens in every nook and cranny of the society. Here’s how he looks on a poster on the cover of a 1950 “pulp fiction-style” edition of the book.
Here he is onscreen in the BBC 1954 TV version.
Here he is on a poster and a billboard in the 1956 movie.
But I’m kind of partial to his look onscreen in the 1984 movie version, shown here at a mass rally.
I bring all this up because references to Big Brother are extremely common these days on the Internet, particularly in politically-inclined blog writings. Authors use lots of hyperbole to try to convince me that the US has become or is well on the way to becoming, an Orwellian environment. It’s a common “meme” to see posters of Barack Obama cast in the part of Big Brother.
Then again, comparing a US president to Big Brother is nothing new. There were earlier Internet memes on the opposite side of the political spectrum …
So is this true? Am I being watched every minute of every day by whatever regime is in Washington, so that it can control my every thought? Honestly … to read some blogs, it is obvious that some people do believe that this is “the reality” on every street in every town and city in America. Is my daily life now, or in recent decades REALLY like this scene from the 1956 movie, with the All-Seeing eye of George Bush or Barack Obama checking me out?
Sorry, I don’t buy it. Oh, don’t get me wrong. I have no doubt that a whole lot of “surveillance” is going on in the name of various branches of government, including Homeland Security. Yes, I would be frisked and poked at and looked at with cameras … both externally and internally … at many airports. I don’t mean to minimize a certain amount of gross intrusiveness in some settings. And yes, I suppose all my emails are stored somewhere in a Cloud and could be accessible to rummage through if someone was inclined to do so, to see if I’m a subversive. Although it seems with the multiple billions of emails being churned out by even just Americans, it would be pretty counterproductive for some shadowy governmental spook to be checking on which Cat Video I am passing along to my forum buddies at any given moment.
No, I don’t believe that our US society (in spite of indeed some heavy-handedness by government in some areas) is currently, or is in position to anytime soon be, a carbon copy of Orwell’s dystopian vision. Nor do I believe that Barack Obama (or George W. Bush before him) is an incarnation of Big Brother … or The Antichrist.
But I have titled this blog series “The Rise of Big Brother.” Why?
Because…There is an aspect of US society, both in our present and in our history of the past century and more, that is a much better fit as a reflection of the idea of Big Brother than just a president with a two-term limit. I am fully convinced that Barack Obama is going to wander on out of office in early 2017 without fulfilling a “prophetic role” and setting up a Big Brother Society … and without accomplishing a lot of the things he hoped to accomplish. Just as George W Bush never panned out as the permanent Big Bad Wolf envisioned by the meme-makers of past years.
But when Obama passes from the scene, just as Bush did, there will be a “presence” in our society that will still be here. The “spirit” of Big Brother began rising a long time ago, it’s here now, and it will be here in the future. If we recognize it, and take steps to contain it, maybe it will not be able to ascend to the kind of total power of the Big Brother of Orwell’s imagination.
If you’d like to be part of the Resistance Movement, come along as we explore the topic in this series, starting with the next entry in the series: