Like most people of my generation, I read 1984 in my early teens, and was very impressed that “Big Brother is Watching You!” These many years later, the phrase still gives a shivery feeling.
But in creating it, George Orwell applied a little bit of author ju-jitsu. He repeats so often that big brother is watching you that it takes thought and time to understand he’s sold us on the myth of the big brother which was a peculiar delusion of his characters and his whole world.
The truth is that we don’t know if Big Brother even exists or ever existed. Those of us from countries that were more openly bombarded with Soviet Propaganda learned to read the presence or absence on the podium of this or that official and know who was alive and who was dead, despite official pronouncements. And even in Portugal, when I was six or so and Salazar suffered an accident/stroke and was supposedly fighting for his life, I remember my mother saying “He’s in deep freeze while the potential successors fight for primacy.” Note, I never forgot that. Even to my six-year-old self, it had the ring of truth.
So I should have — but didn’t until years after my first read — have wondered if Big Brother existed, or if he had ever existed, or if he’d died long ago. And even if he was alive, well, and in charge, it didn’t mean the policies that randomly caught and destroyed people were his.
Yes, yes, Mao and Stalin and yes, Hitler too, are responsible for some of the most heinous mass murders in the history of mankind, not only for their numbers, but for their revolting depersonalization of human beings, treating people as objects whose utility and right to exist would be decided by third parties. No, we’re not at home to “If only Stalin knew” or “Hitler was a poor fool who didn’t know the genocide perpetrated in his name.” They were in charge, they had visibility into the system. They knew.
But the system was made vile and horrendous and (to the extent it was) efficient by the rest of the people. Not the evil sin-eater at the top, but everyone who followed orders, or who — even — found ways of ingratiating him or herself, or winning some kind of benefit from being extra-diligent in pursuing the regimes stated goals.
Sure the big pictures and the big ceremonies pointed to the figureheads of the regime, who to an extent shaped it with their personalities, and who could probably have redirected it with a minimum of care (we’re also not at home to the concept of history that is all big, unthinking movements of crowds, thank you so much.) But the crimes of the regime were shared by thousands or millions of those who executed orders, or who were extremely diligent in denouncing their neighbors, executing “suspected counter-revolutionaries” etc.
You cannot, in fact, read a history of any totalitarian regime or episode in the history of mankind, from the French terror onward without becoming aware of the fact that whole lot of otherwise completely normal and anonymous people contributed to the bloodbath.
Why did they do it? Why did these otherwise normal, sometimes kindly people, collaborate in the utter vileness of mass murder of their neighbors, their friends, their relatives?
It is comforting and a little reassuring to tell ourselves it was because of “Befehl ist Befehl” or “Zum Befehl.” We know better now, right. We’ve all been told to examine orders and not follow them blindly.
If it were only that, if most people collaborated with evil only to follow orders, the regime would relent sometimes.
In fact, the tyranny depicted in 1984 would be impossible without the active and eager collaboration of a lot of people. Many, many people had to review all of the actions of everyone around them and be eager to denounce them before the regime acquired its all-pervasive force and ability to destroy.
After all, though the screen might say “Big Brother is Watching You” it was physically impossible for a single person to review all the monitoring tapes. No, it would be done by bureaucrats, who might indeed be poring over every second of your daily actions. Or they might be scratching themselves and thinking of what to have for dinner.
To the extent that the tapes were reviewed vigorously enough you knew you couldn’t ignore — say — the orders to exercise, because there was a chance you’d get caught, it meant that lots of common, normal people had bought into the program and were eagerly, passionately watching their neighbors.
Why? Oh, if you read those horrible annals of the debasement of humans under evil regimes, you’ll see each person has all sorts of reasons: personal vengeance against someone who falls in their power; true belief in the stated objectives of the regime; desire for someone else’s wealth; or merely a desire to advance and to have power for power’s sake; heck, even a desire to be the last one the tiger eats. After all, if you’re the one deciding who gets killed, you’re not the one in the tumbril. Or not yet.
This is important now because, with 1984 way in the past, we know that we don’t have pictures of Big Brother everywhere, we don’t have TVs that report on us (though what your Alexa might do, I can’t tell you), and a lot of other things Orwell feared didn’t come to pass.
However, don’t take too deep a breath of relief. In our interconnected world, where convenience forces us to expose some of our privacy in return, the people who would have made the Big Brother – existent or not – fearsome do exist.
They’re the people who will read every sentence of your massive online presence in search of a typo that they can use, out of context, to claim you’re racistsexisthomophobic or that you really want to kill all New Agers (never mind. That might be the weirdest accusation ever leveled against me.) Or that you truly blend puppies for your youth elixir or…
A lot of companies and services, scared of these people’s accusations, and their continuous wail of racistsexisthomophobic evil under everyone’s bed even give them positions of power. Twitter has a safety committee and Google has a bizarre internal policy of political non-diversity and many, many companies quake and cave and allow these malevolent hysterics have the power to direct their internal or external policy.
Sure, there is no big picture on our screens – though in private many of these people festoon their living spaces with pictures of that repugnant, evil mass murderer, Che Guevara – and Big Brother isn’t watching us.
But the pettiness and relentless malice of your neighbors never sleeps. And the digital world makes everyone your neighbors.
We have distributed totalitarianism, bent on enforcing central directives that are passed down from anonymous “thought leaders” who in turn come up with them at the directive of Marxism and the long-dead hand of Soviet propaganda.
Big Brother is dead and in a freezer, but his frozen brain sends out spasmodic thought-orders through the network of Marxists in the nation. Today they go after racistsexisthomophobes, tomorrow they extend that to “Islamophobes” and prevent, say, the outlawing of female genital mutilation.
Or to put it another way, the thought-viruses implanted long ago by Soviet propaganda are alive and well: the demand that the country be perfect, or else capitalism is bad; the hatred of our own homeland and our own culture; the certainty that all our failures are someone else’s fault.
All of those animate the usual suspects: the people who are jealous, envious, scared, power-hungry.
And their constant vigilance and actions are tearing our country apart and making every one of us less free.
The good news is that there is a way to fight this. It will cost you. Or at least it will cost you sometimes when you rise to their attention. I know. I grew up in a village, where all the neighbors spied and talked and cut your reputation to shreds, which sometimes had consequences.
The way to deal with this is to confront the sniveling informers and say “yes, and?” or “That is the best you can make up?” Point them out, laugh at them, point out their little angry rat eyes, their twitching whiskers. Do not be afraid. Sure, they might lose you a job; they might make people who never heard of you hate you and imagine you a genocidal monster.
But this is not worse than submitting to their dictates, selling your soul for the good opinion of people who are never satisfied, or joining the machine to keep it from turning on you.
And if enough people ignore them, they have no power.
Do not be afraid of the rats, Winston. The worst they can do is kill you.
Giving in for fear of them can kill everyone and the human spirit and future besides.
They’ve distributed totalitarianism.
It’s time to distribute freedom.