Orwell’s 1984 and Today
Editors’ Note: As Americans celebrate and honor our fallen heroes who fought and died for our liberty and Republic for over two centuries, Dr. Larry Arnn’s Imprimis essay informs us and reminds us of how fragile and threatened our liberty and Republic are at the present time. This Imprimis essay could not be more timely for this Memorial Day, May 31, 2021.
The following is adapted from a speech delivered at a Hillsdale College reception in Rogers, Arkansas, on November 17, 2020.
On September 17, Constitution Day, I chaired a panel organized by the White House. It was an extraordinary thing. The panel’s purpose was to identify what has gone wrong in the teaching of American history and to lay forth a plan for recovering the truth. It took place in the National Archives—we were sitting in front of the originals of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution—a very beautiful place. When we were done, President Trump came and gave a speech about the beauty of the American Founding and the importance of teaching American history to the preservation of freedom.
This remarkable event reminded me of an essay by a teacher of mine, Harry Jaffa, called “On the Necessity of a Scholarship of the Politics of Freedom.” Its point was that a certain kind of scholarship is needed to support the principles of a nation such as ours. America is the most deliberate nation in history—it was built for reasons that are stated in the legal documents that form its founding. The reasons are given in abstract and universal terms, and without good scholarship they can be turned astray. I was reminded of that essay because this event was the greatest exhibition in my experience of the combination of the scholarship and the politics of freedom.
The panel was part of an initiative of President Trump, mostly ignored by the media, to counter the New York Times’ 1619 Project. The 1619 Project promotes the teaching that slavery, not freedom, is the defining fact of American history. President Trump’s 1776 Commission aims to restore truth and honesty to the teaching of American history. It is an initiative we must work tirelessly to carry on, regardless of whether we have a president in the White House who is on our side in the fight.
We must carry on the fight because our country is at stake. Indeed, in a larger sense, civilization itself is at stake, because the forces arrayed against the scholarship and the politics of freedom today have more radical aims than just destroying America.
I taught a course this fall semester on totalitarian novels. We read four of them: George Orwell’s 1984, Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength.
The totalitarian novel is a relatively new genre. In fact, the word “totalitarian” did not exist before the 20th century. The older word for the worst possible form of government is “tyranny”—a word Aristotle defined as the rule of one person, or of a small group of people, in their own interests and according to their will. Totalitarianism was unknown to Aristotle, because it is a form of government that only became possible after the emergence of modern science and technology.
The old word “science” comes from a Latin word meaning “to know.” The new word “technology” comes from a Greek word meaning “to make.” The transition from traditional to modern science means that we are not so much seeking to know when we study nature as seeking to make things—and ultimately, to remake nature itself. That spirit of remaking nature—including human nature—greatly emboldens both human beings and governments. Imbued with that spirit, and employing the tools of modern science, totalitarianism is a form of government that reaches farther than tyranny and attempts to control the totality of things.
In the beginning of his history of the Persian War, Herodotus recounts that in Persia it was considered illegal even to think about something that was illegal to do—in other words, the law sought to control people’s thoughts. Herodotus makes plain that the Persians were not able to do this. We today are able to get closer through the use of modern technology. In Orwell’s 1984, there are telescreens everywhere, as well as hidden cameras and microphones. Nearly everything you do is watched and heard. It even emerges that the watchers have become expert at reading people’s faces. The organization that oversees all this is called the Thought Police.
If it sounds far-fetched, look at China today: there are cameras everywhere watching the people, and everything they do on the Internet is monitored. Algorithms are run and experiments are underway to assign each individual a social score. If you don’t act or think in the politically correct way, things happen to you—you lose the ability to travel, for instance, or you lose your job. It’s a very comprehensive system. And by the way, you can also look at how big tech companies here in the U.S. are tracking people’s movements and activities to the extent that they are often able to know in advance what people will be doing. Even more alarming, these companies are increasingly able and willing to use the information they compile to manipulate people’s thoughts and decisions.
The protagonist of 1984 is a man named Winston Smith. He works for the state, and his job is to rewrite history…..
Continue reading this Imprimis essay by Dr. Arnn, the President, Hillsdale College.
Larry P. Arnn is the twelfth president of Hillsdale College. He received his B.A. from Arkansas State University and his M.A. and Ph.D. in government from the Claremont Graduate School. From 1977 to 1980, he also studied at the London School of Economics and at Worcester College, Oxford University, where he served as director of research for Martin Gilbert, the official biographer of Winston Churchill. From 1985 until his appointment as president of Hillsdale College in 2000, he was president of the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy. He is the author of Liberty and Learning: The Evolution of American Education; The Founders’ Key: The Divine and Natural Connection Between the Declaration and the Constitution; and Churchill’s Trial: Winston Churchill and the Salvation of Free Government.
Imprimis is the free monthly speech digest of Hillsdale College and is dedicated to educating citizens and promoting civil and religious liberty by covering cultural, economic, political, and educational issues. The content of Imprimis is drawn from speeches delivered at Hillsdale College events. First published in 1972, Imprimis is one of the most widely circulated opinion publications in the nation with over 5.7 million subscribers.
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