By Michael Grossberg
Almost three quarters of a century after the publication of Nineteen Eighty-Four, the influence and prophetic power of George Orwell hasn’t faded.
Quite the contrary.
With the rise of “cancel culture” and various online-sparked mob panics increasingly common in our so-called enlightened modern era and with such dystopian experiments as the recent failed roll-out of the current administration’s “Disinformation Governance Board,” it’s become virtually impossible to read informed commentary across a broad spectrum of opinion magazines and columnists without coming across Orwellian references and warnings these days.
Perhaps that’s a sad commentary on our times – or perhaps it’s a perversely salutary trend in some ways, reflecting the fact that in relatively free societies, people remain wary of many perceived authoritarian trends and wish to alert others to their dangers.
Either way, there’s no question that in 2021 and 2022, Orwell’s classic dystopian novel, published in 1948 and inducted into the Prometheus Hall of Fame in 1984, ranks at or near the top of Prometheus-winning novels in the news today.
If you don’t recall, that was the year when so many media organizations did features, stories and commentaries on Orwell’s classic novel, and inevitably felt compelled to ask the cliché question: “Are we closer in 1984 to a “1984”-style dictatorship? (The short answer, perhaps easier to grasp today with the help of hindsight, was no – not really, although there were and always are authoritarian tendencies to recognize and oppose.)
THE DISINFORMATION BOARD, NOW “PAUSED”
But today, some political actions and trends seem more concretely Orwellian than ever – almost as if they were inspired directly from the plot of Nineteen Eighty-Four.
For instance, the Spectator magazine recently reported on the relative good news that the U.S. government’s recently announced federal Disinformation Governance Board has been “paused” – itself a rather Orwellian euphemism by yet another administration that has difficulty speaking clearly, accurately or honestly about a variety of issues.
Here’s an excerpt from the Spectator report that includes the now-obligatory Orwellian reference:
“The… “Disinformation Governance Board,” dubbed by many, even leftists, as a dystopian Ministry of Truth, has had its wings clipped after the Department of Homeland Security unveiled the new bureau just three weeks ago.
The rollout of the new board was itself lacking a lot of information, (and)… The DHS can save itself the trouble of assessing next steps, as Nina Jankowicz, the administration’s pick to lead the task force, has resigned already, and the Disinformation Governance Board has been “paused” amid ongoing backlash.”
The Spectator note even got a bit snarky:
“Taylor Lorenz, the Washington Post’s “internet culture” reporter and an expert on spreading disinformation, is coming to Jankowicz’s defense, claiming she is a “victim” of coordinated right-wing attacks — which, evidently, Jankowicz was not qualified to squelch, despite being a “well-known figure in the field of fighting disinformation and extremism.”
Although there were quite a few objections to the Disinformation Board made by columnists and leaders across the political spectrum, including several prominent liberals and Democrats, the Post reporter didn’t mention any of them in her allegedly objective news analysis. (Was she aware of them and shoved them down Orwell’s infamous “memory hole” like a propagandist in the novel’s Ministry of Truth – or was she stuck mindlessly in a media bubble of ignorance, the result in part of other propagandists and partisans within her own tribe?)
THE NEW “THOUGHTCRIMES” – ANOTHER PROFESSOR CANCELED
Former New York Times columnist/editor Bari Weiss, who was demonized and hounded out of that newspaper by a mob of young illiberal staffers, now has a must-read Substack column and website standing up for reason, civil liberties, free expression, facts, science and the right to dissent.
Weiss, a Jewish liberal who has published an important book on How to Fight Anti-Semitism, recently published on her Substack “Common Sense” blog a guest column about the proposed Princeton firing of a tenured professor for a long-resolved mistake made and adjudicated many years ago.
Significantly, when Weiss (at @bariweiss) tweeted about the slant and biases of a recent New York Times report about the latest witch-hunt, she used a word popularized by Orwell in Nineteen Eighty Four: “thoughtcrime.”
“Here’s the playbook: person expresses thoughtcrime,” Weiss wrote.
“The Puritans and the bureaucrats go digging. Then they caricature and smear the person based on their worst moment or mistake. They pretend it’s about that, but the thoughtcrime was always the thing.”
Meanwhile, for a third example (among many one could pick recently), and one seemingly drawn directly from the pages of Orwell’s novel, consider what’s been happening lately in Great Britain, the actual if fictionalized setting for Orwell’s propaganda-spewing Ministry of Truth and his haunting portrait of mobs riled up by a dictatorial and media-manipulative dictatorship to participate in “Two-Minute Hates” – a rather prescient stab on Orwell’s part at the typically short-lived excesses of today’s social-media panics.
Here’s an excerpt from “The BBC Quietly Censors Its Own Archives,” an article about how out of public view, the state-owned broadcaster has been altering old episodes of its shows to make them ‘suitable’ for modern listeners.
“Reflecting upon George Orwell’s many authoritative predictions can grow tiresome for writer and reader alike. And yet, given our present predicament, one might ask what choice one truly has. “The sinister fact about literary censorship in England,” Orwell wrote back in 1945, “is that it is largely voluntary.” And so, indeed, it is,” as National Review writer Charles C.W. Cooke reported in the article.
“The Daily Telegraph reported that “an anonymous Radio 4 Extra listener” had “discovered the BBC had been quietly editing repeats of shows over the past few years to be more in keeping with social mores.” To which the BBC said . . . well, yeah. In a statement addressing the charge, the institution confirmed that “on occasion we edit some episodes so they’re suitable for broadcast today, including removing racially offensive language and stereotypes from decades ago, as the vast majority of our audience would expect.” Thus, in the absence of law or regulation, has the British establishment begun to excise material it finds inappropriate by today’s lights.
“The deployment of the word “broadcast” in the BBC’s affirmation was both deliberate and misleading. Historically, a “broadcast” was a one-off event, like a newspaper or stage performance. But, as the BBC presumably knows, in the age of streaming, “broadcasts” tend to be more permanent than that. Because it is so old, much of the material that the BBC has been altering is not available to purchase or download, nor broadly owned on physical media, which means that when the BBC elects to change it, it is changing the only working copy that the majority of the public may enjoy…
“In a free market, one might be obliged to throw up one’s hands and lament that the copyright holder was such a philistine. But the BBC is a de facto government agency — an agency for which all Britons who own televisions are forced by statute to pay — and, as a result, the material that it is modifying is effectively publicly owned.
“This raises a host of important questions — chief among which is: Why, if “the vast majority” of the BBC’s audience expects the organization to render its archives more “suitable,” has it been doing so in secret?
“Again: In the Internet age, changes made to source material tend to be iterative rather than additive. When the New York Times updates a story in its newspaper, one can plausibly obtain both copies.
“By contrast, when the New York Times updates a story on its website, the original page disappears. By its own admission, the BBC has been deleting entire sketches from comedy series that are 50, 60, or 70 years old, many of which can be heard only with the BBC’s permission. Are we simply to assume that the public supports this development? And, if so, are we permitted to wonder why the BBC was not open about it?”
The knowledgeable article observes that Orwell based the job that central character Winston Smith held in the Records section of the Ministry of Truth on the job that his wife had held at the British Ministry of Information’s censorship department early in World War II.
The “process of continuous alteration” in which Smith was engaged, Orwell wrote in 1984, “applied not only to newspapers, but to books, periodicals, pamphlets, posters, leaflets, films, sound-tracks, cartoons, photographs—to every kind of literature or documentation which might conceivably hold any political or ideological significance,” such that “day by day and almost minute by minute the past was brought up to date.”
“What better description could one find of what the BBC is now doing to its canon? Some of the revisions… are, indeed, the result of changing mores. Others, however, smack of cynical self-protection.”
“Thanks to its traditional role and its remarkable longevity, the BBC is in the enviable position of having untrammeled access to a treasure trove of historical archives. If, in an attempt to protect its reputation and placate Britain’s many would-be arbiters of taste, it is incapable of curating and exhibiting those archives without attempting to bringing them “up to date,” then, as a matter of priority, they must be placed elsewhere — alongside an exacting and stringent warning that, whatever the role of government-run media may be in 2022, it cannot be to control the past, the present, or anything in-between.”
Such yes, Orwellian trends today to control, suppress, hide and censor art, culture, news, information and “misinformation” (too often meaning simply facts, news and legitimate opinion that the authorities find inconvenient) may be predictable but they still remain disturbing to freedom lovers and anyone who appreciates the need for culture to remain vibrant, open and honest about its history.
Happily, then, it’s good to see relatively wide awareness and concern, across a variety of opinion magazines and from left to right, whenever such authoritarian trends manifest – even when they do so absurdly, prompting some measure of both disdain and cynical humor.
How much worse would our world and culture be if such trends were simply taken for granted and not even reported?
Here’s a relevant excerpt from the Prometheus Blog appreciation of Orwell’s novel:
“Although most totalitarian and communist systems have thankfully collapsed or faded from the Earth, Orwell’s novel resonates today even in less extreme circumstances and societies.
“Many of his telling details and imaginative concepts and phrases illuminate the tribalism, identity politics and political correctness amplified through television, the Internet and other forms of social media in a 21st century global village where facts and truth, or respect for honest differences of opinion and policy increasingly don’t seem to matter.”
Read the full Prometheus Blog appreciation of Orwell’s masterpiece here.
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