If there is any doubt about the persistent power of literature in the face of digital culture, it should be banished by the recent climb of George Orwell’s 1984 up the Amazon “Movers & Shakers” list. There is much that’s resonant for us in Orwell’s dystopia in the face of Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA: the totalitarian State of Oceania, its sinister Big Brother, always watching, the history-erasing Ministry of Truth, and the menacing Thought Police, with their omnipresent telescreens. All this may seem to be the endgame of indiscriminate data mining, surveillance, and duplicitous government control. We look to 1984as a clear cautionary tale, even a prophecy, of systematic abuse of power taken to the end of the line. However, the notion that the novel concludes with a brainwashed, broken protagonist, Winston Smith, weeping into his Victory Gin and the bitter sentence: “He loved Big Brother,” are not exactly right. Big Brother does not actually get the last word.
After “THE END,” Orwell includes another chapter, an appendix, called “The Principles of Newspeak.” Since it has the trappings of a tedious scholarly treatise, readers often skip the appendix. But it changes our whole understanding of the novel. Written from some unspecified point in the future, it suggests that Big Brother was eventually defeated. The victory is attributed not to individual rebels or to The Brotherhood, an anonymous resistance group, but rather to language itself. The appendix details Oceania’s attempt to replace Oldspeak, or English, with Newspeak, a linguistic shorthand that reduces the world of ideas to a set of simple, stark words. “The whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought.” It will render dissent “literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.”
But it never comes to pass. The Party’s plans—the abolition of the family, laughter, art, literature, curiosity, pleasure, in favor of a “boot stamping down on a human face forever”—are never achieved because Newspeak fails to take. Why? Because it was too difficult to translate Oldspeak literature into Newspeak. The text Orwell singles out to exemplify this, intriguingly, is the Declaration of Independence. The “author” of the appendix argues that these ideas cannot be expressed in Newspeak, specifically the part about governments deriving their legitimacy from the consent of the people, and citizens having the right to challenge any government that fails to honor the contract. As long as we have a nuanced, expansive system of language, Orwell claims, we will have freedom and the possibility of dissent.
This appeal to the integrity of language and principled thought may sound utopic or academic, but we are currently in the midst of a similar struggle. Consider the names of the post-9/11 programs that were ostensibly designed to protect the United States: the Patriot Act, Boundless Informant, and practices like “enhanced interrogation techniques.” The justifications of these 1984-sounding schemes—and PRISM too—follow the obfuscating principles of Newspeak and the kind of manipulative euphemism Orwell skewers in his famous essay, “Politics and the English Language.” He writes: “Political language—and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists—is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” Orwell maintains that misleading terminology and evasive explanations are endemic to modern politics. “In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible,” including practices like imprisoning people “for years without trial,“ Orwell writes.
If the main story of 1984 is language and freedom of thought, a crucial part of the Snowden case is technology as a conduit of ideas. In Orwell’s novel, technology is a purely oppressive force, but in reality it can also be a means of liberation. Snowden has claimed that tech companies are in collusion with the government, but he’s also using those same channels of technology to tell his story. Daniel Ellsberg had to photocopy the Pentagon Papers and distribute them in hard copies; now our language of dissent includes emails, tweets, and IMs.
It’s worth recalling Apple’s famous ad that unveiled the Macintosh computer to the world in 1984, making full use of the reference to Orwell’s novel. A mass of worker drones trudges toward a screen showing a bespectacled leader proclaiming that, “We have created, for the first time in all history, a garden of pure ideology—where each worker may bloom, secure from the pests purveying contradictory truths.” Suddenly, an athletic woman, in glorious technicolor, emerges with a hammer, the police in pursuit. She hurls the weapon at the screen and smashes the image. “On January 24th,” the screen tells us, “Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like ‘1984.’” Apple’s Board of Directors tried to block the ad, but Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak pushed it through.
This is contemporary technology’s founding myth: the garage band ethos of its early founders going up against centralized, bureaucratic cultures like IBM by putting technology into the hands of the people. Obviously, scrappy startups have grown into multinational corporations led by wealthy CEOs, and most successful social networks are now run by powerful companies. However, we are surrounded by examples of technology used to question the status quo: Twitter and the Arab Spring is one example, Wikileaks is another, and so is Snowden.
When Orwell wrote 1984, he was responding to the Cold War, not contemporary terrorism. He did not anticipate the full reach of digital technology. Even so, he was correct in seeing a future where the government had greater control but also a belief in the people’s ability to use language for dissent.
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Freedom stands for something greater than just the right to act however I choose—it also stands for securing to everyone an equal opportunity for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
To most reasonable people, freedom means more than just ‘free to do whatever I want’. Taken literally, that approach would produce anarchy—every man, woman, and child for himself or herself. Fortunately, none of us has to live that way (unless you’re reading this in Somalia or a similar disaster area).
Certainly freedom does mean the right to do as one pleases—to think, believe, speak, worship (or not worship), move about, gather, and generally act as you choose—but only until your choices start to infringe on another person’s freedom.
This still leaves a great deal of latitude. There is a long list of things that one can say, and say freely, for example, that excludes shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater.
One way to think of this is the difference between “freedom of” (or “freedom to”) and “freedom from”—a point eloquently made by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his State of the Union Address delivered on January 6, 1941:
We look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.
The first is freedom of speech and expression—everywhere in the world.
The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way—everywhere in the world.
The third is freedom from want—which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants—everywhere in the world.
The fourth is freedom from fear—which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor—anywhere in the world.
That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation.
The Four Freedoms
Securing freedom from fear and freedom from want is very likely to entail some collective, organized action. That kind of activity is often carried out most effectively and efficiently (although, admittedly, not perfectly) by the government. If we want to live in a society where freedoms are protected and where the opportunity to exercise freedom is assured, we have to rely on some form of governance. So far, liberal representative democracy seems to do the best job of it.
Note also that Roosevelt spoke in “world terms.” He and his colleagues (including his wife, Eleanor, one of the greatest women of the 20th century) operated according to a vision in which the United States belonged to a family of nations. This family was interdependent, cooperative, and shared common values. The U.S., in their eyes, would act as a member of that family—a leading member, to be sure, but not a belligerent or domineering one.
In the same speech, Roosevelt said:
There is nothing mysterious about the foundations of a healthy and strong democracy. The basic things expected by our people of their political and economic systems are simple. They are:
- Equality of opportunity for youth and for others.
- Jobs for those who can work.
- Security for those who need it.
- The ending of special privilege for the few.
- The preservation of civil liberties for all.
- The enjoyment of the fruits of scientific progress in a wider and constantly rising standard of living.
These are the simple, basic things that must never be lost sight of in the turmoil and unbelievable complexity of our modern world. The inner and abiding strength of our economic and political systems is dependent upon the degree to which they fulfill these expectations.
This message is now nearly six decades old, but still rings as true today as when first spoken. We can hardly improve on FDR’s description of the fundamental goals and objectives of technoprogressive policies.
Of course, in 2009 we must take into account new issues and possible new areas of freedom—and potential infringements on freedom—that could not be anticipated in 1941.
In the next 50 years, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, genetic engineering, and cognitive science will allow human beings to transcend the limitations of the human body. Our senses and cognition will be enhanced. We will have greater control over our emotions and memory. Our bodies and brains will be surrounded by and merged with computer power. We will use these technologies to redesign ourselves and our children in ways that push the boundaries of “humanness.”
One central mission of the IEET is to protect what we call “morphological freedom”—the right for individuals to manage, maintain, augment, and upgrade their own bodies as they see fit—so long, of course, as their actions don’t negatively impact somebody else’s freedoms.
It is interesting that in his 1941 State of the Union Address, Roosevelt spoke of heath care issues that sound immediately familiar in light of the current debate on the U.S. over health insurance reform. He said:
We should bring more citizens under the coverage of old-age pensions and unemployment insurance. We should widen the opportunities for adequate medical care.
The argument about health care as a human right and access to basic medicine as an important part of freedom is not a new one. Nor is the effort by opponents of expanded coverage to cast the provision of benefits as a threat to freedom.
As Thomas Frank points out in this important op-ed from yesterday’s Wall Street Journal:
Conservatives of the 1930s, led by an upper-crust outfit called the American Liberty League, certainly felt that way. “That Roosevelt was a dictator there was no doubt; but Liberty Leaguers were not quite sure what kind,” wrote the historian George Wolfskill in “The Revolt of the Conservatives,” a 1962 study of that organization. “Some thought he was a fascist, others believed him a socialist or Communist, while others, to be absolutely sure, said he was both.”
Frank’s piece is titled “The Left should reclaim ‘Freedom’—The Right was wrong about FDR too.” He says:
There are few things in politics more annoying than the right’s utter conviction that it owns the patent on the word “freedom”—that when its leaders stand up for the rights of banks to be unregulated or capital gains to be untaxed, that it is actually and obviously standing up for human liberty, the noblest cause of them all. . .
Any increase in the size or duties of government, the right tells us, necessarily subtracts from our freedom. Government is, by its very nature, a destroyer of liberties; the Obama administration, specifically, is promising to interfere with the economy and the health-care system so profoundly that Washington will soon have us all in chains.
“What we’re going to end up with is higher taxes, bigger government and less freedom for the American people,” House Republican Leader John Boehner said on Fox News in July. “We’re going to have a real fight for how much freedom we’re going to have left in America.”
Today, of course, we know that the right’s tyranny-fears [about FDR] were nonsense. Most of Roosevelt’s innovations have been the law of the land for 70 years now, and yet we are still a free society.
In closing, Frank makes this vital point:
The reality of misgovernment, meanwhile, is not something you can grasp simply by donning a tricorn hat and musing on the majesty of Lady Liberty. It requires, among other things, close attention to the following irony: That many of the most destructive and even corrupt policies of the past few decades were engineered by exactly the sort of people who claim to be motivated by freedom and liberty.
During the recent horrible administration of George W. Bush, I often pleaded with people not to view Bush, Cheney, et al., as conservatives. They were clearly and profoundly not interested in conserving the liberties or the general welfare of Americans, as was their Constitutional duty. Rather, they were intent on maximizing the security and strength of powerful corporations, on whose boards they and their cohorts have so comfortably sat.
Have you ever taken the World’s Smallest Political Quiz? While it is far from perfect, it does offer a useful alternative to the traditional left-right spectrum, opting instead for a diamond-shaped depiction of U.S. political positions.
The red dot shows where I score on the quiz. I would submit that supporters of Bush-style politics, including many of today’s alleged ‘conservatives’, are really much closer to Big Government Statists. Bush, after all, increased the size of the federal deficit far beyond what any of his predecessors had done, while at the same time overseeing the most heinous incursions into civil liberties of any President since, well, perhaps ever.
Although I’ve openly stated my displeasure with the extreme positions of certain declared libertarians, I am not at all opposed to many of the tenets of libertarian thinking. I’ve even at times declared myself to be a “libertarian socialist.” Social freedoms should, in my view, be free from government restraint in almost every case.
Being a technoprogressive means being in favor of freedom. What we have to make clear, though, is that freedom stands for much more than just the right to act however I choose—it also stands for securing to everyone an equal opportunity for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Mike Treder is a former Managing Director of the IEET.
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