Must We Keep Citing 1984? The Case Against Orwell in 2015
One thing that should be obvious by now is that the name “conservative” no longer fits the modern American pro-freedom movement. The establishment has been so thoroughly corrupted and rotted by Progressivism’s long march that only the most zealous leftist can argue against the need for corrective change. Indeed, the most common conflict in Conservatarian chatrooms these days is whether to continue working within the system by reclaiming the Republican Party or go all-out revolutionary and tear it down because it is damaged beyond repair. In any event, our eyes are fixed firmly on the future.
Why, then, do we continue to point backward to a book written in the 1940s by a European citizen as the most apt cautionary tale for America today?
1984 pioneered the dystopia genre and is a prototype of literary resistance to leftist oppression. But is it the right dystopia for America in the new millennium? While the defining features of fascism are fixed, the details of its encroachment on modern American soil are a different story.
Orwell wrote from a European perspective and was unfamiliar with the concept of constitutionally protected free speech. In the England of 1984, the Party dictated that Newspeak replace English. But in the U.S., the government is expressly prohibited from suppressing speech. To get around this, American Progressives employ cultural pressure to revise language (and thus, thought). Cultural institutions such as education, entertainment, and publishing have given themselves willingly to the Left, and they effect language changes through diffuse social pressures. Weekly hashtags inform us which words we must no longer use, while grievance groups crank out new jargon that erodes society’s standards. In the U.S., the government simply follows along.
Orwell’s derision of the “Proles” also smacks of European-style aristocratic elitism, and is actually offensive to Americans. The United States does not have “Proles.” We have free citizens who make of their lives what they will, and no one is inherently better than anyone else. In 1984, the Party doesn’t even bother to monitor the Proles, as they pose no threat to the system. When Winston Smith interviews an older prole to learn about the past, the man proves to be a useless idiot. But in the U.S., those who choose to perform their daily labors and raise their families without government interference are certainly not weak-minded and unimportant. These are the very people the Left works so hard to demonize and suppress by demanding they check their privilege and twisting basic education to smear them as worthy of destruction. The so-called “Proles” are actually the people the American Left most fears.
Orwell also flubbed the official Party stance endorsing chastity and purity. The current U.S. government position is the exact opposite, and has been a depressingly effective tool with which to batter Christians and others who hold to time-tested truths. As far as our government is concerned, no practice or preference is so abhorrent that it shouldn’t be celebrated and taxpayer-funded. The Left uses this principle to purge the military, the government and its agents, big education, corporate leaders, and society in general of tiresome conservatives. Any politician who espouses chastity and traditional mores is mocked and scorned and denied a position of power. An official moral stance like the one in 1984 would actually boost the morale of America’s traditionalists, and is therefore unheard of.
Yet although 1984 is clearly not a great fit for our current situation, we still turn back to it again and again. Perhaps our knee-jerk citations of Orwell’s book are emblematic of a larger issue. Can it be that dystopia has run its course?
Dystopia is a crucial genre for showing us the future if we continue down the path we’re on. From 1984 and its post-WWII cohorts, to the pod people and alien invaders of the Communism-leery 1950s, to the devastated sci-fi landscapes of '70s and '80s movies, to recent YA giants like The Giver and The Hunger Games and even today’s explosion of indie fiction, dystopia has dutifully served its purpose many times over. It has painted the future as a horrible place. Consider us warned and warned again.
Although the genre has been invaluable in showing us what the danger is, that is all it does. Its greatest limitation is that it does not give us the solution.
Which brings me to a modest proposal: perhaps it’s time for the creative right to kick our dystopia habit.
Enough with the doom and gloom. Everyone has felt oppressed, impoverished, and insecure long enough – there’s a reason they call it a “depression” – and what is needed now are stories that uplift and show the way forward.
No, I am not suggesting that we become the new purveyors of utopia. Snake-oil futures are a propaganda pillar of the Left’s slog towards totalitarianism. Anyone who can still think critically knows that unicorns and rainbows will never be enough to allow people to work nine months of the year, retire at 50, and still live a life of affluence. The Left claims utopia is just around the corner because they are in denial of basic truths: power corrupts, rights are granted by the creator (or Creator, if you prefer), and nature’s law is absolute. Our vision of the future will differ from the Progressive lie because ours is informed by timeless truths, and is therefore possible.
Unfortunately, when searching for the way forward, conservatives do tend to look back. In 1984, Winston Smith turns to the simple lifestyle of the past for comfort. He fetishizes an antique glass paperweight that represents a freer time when people had liberty to create items for beauty and pleasure. He rents an apartment in the Prole part of town, where he and his lover may nap in an old bed, heat water for real coffee on a gas ring, read books, and escape the ever-present telescreens of modern life. They are happy there because they are able to escape backwards in time.
Modern rebels must break this addiction to looking backward for the way forward. There is an old American Indian saying: if you want to steer your own canoe, you must paddle faster than the current. We must harness our uncorrupted imaginations to the task of envisioning how inalienable truths would play out in a desirable future society. Let us be the ones to show the world what a good future looks like.
Let’s world-build in a spirit of optimism once again. Let’s dream of new technologies and ever-improving lifestyles like we used to.
Let’s create an entrepreneur who establishes an organization that employs people and improves lives. Perhaps a brilliant scientist develops a wonderful invention with private investors and without interference. Citizens might freely make contracts among themselves. Couples could fall in love and marry and raise their children as they see fit. Maybe a religious baker respectfully refuses to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple, and the gay couple respectfully takes their business elsewhere and gets a fabulous cake anyway, and everyone gets the hell over it.
Let’s envision a future where principles that are timeless and not merely conservative rule the day: freedom, individual sovereignty, self-reliance, personal responsibility, love in all its forms, and respect for one another. These values served us well in the past and they will serve us well in the future. We have only to show the way. Millions of dispirited Americans are waiting to feel inspired again.
And once a positive, desirable vision of the future is widespread, people will know what they want (rather than only what they fear). Best of all, those who oppose this positive future will be revealed as the hateful, anti-progress, bitter clingers who are stuck in the past.
Let us be the side that stands for positivity and possibility. Nihilism and despair are the cultural tools of the left. 1984 is ultimately the wrong story for our times because, in the end, the totalitarian collective wins. That’s not the future we should create.
Image: 1984 Penguin books reissued cover via here.