Why Orwell's 1984 is still relevant

First aired on The Sunday Edition (30/06/13)

After whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed a massive surveillance program in which the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) could monitor the cellphone and internet activity of U.S. citizens, terms like "Orwellian" and "Big Brother" became ubiquitous in the media and everyday conversation. Sales of 1984, George Orwell's famous dystopian novel, spiked by about 7,000 per cent. But according to a survey by Pew Research Center, the majority of U.S. citizens were okay with this snooping in the name of security. For Michael Shelden, a professor of English at Indiana State University and the author of Orwell: The Authorized Biography, these developments prove that the work and vision of George Orwell are still relevant. He spoke with guest host Kevin Sylvester in a recent interview on The Sunday Edition.

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When asked about the resurgence of interest in 1984, Shelden suggested "it's because people realize that this problem of 'Big Brother is watching you' is not going to go away." He went on to describe the phrase as "probably one of the most prophetic things said in a novel in the last 100 years. Because we're watching it come true before our eyes."

Orwell came up with the phrase after working at the BBC, where he got a sense of the broadcasting corporation's huge power "to reach into people's homes through radio waves," Shelden said. Orwell chose the term "Big Brother" in part because he believed that large corporations want to give the impression they're looking out for your interests, but they really want to control you. Shelden likened it to "a big brother's attitude in a family. The big brother wants to look out for you, but he also wants to make sure you do exactly what he tells you."

Orwell describes a culture of acquiescence in his novel. Shelden pointed out that the original title of 1984 was The Last Man in Europe, which he likes because it suggests "that the whole fight against this kind of control, tyranny, if you will, will eventually come down to a few last people who will stand up and say 'No.' Or perhaps even just one person who raises the right questions and starts other people to think in the right directions."

Shelden pointed out that "a lot had been building up in [Orwell's] mind about how societies function, how they exert their power, especially the British Empire." Orwell had worked as a journalist and had also been a policeman in Burma. "He's one of these writers who can tell you about how power works, and he's seen it at its most brutal level. He's watched executions in his official capacity. So he knows what it means to have the power to take a human life."

Orwell fought in the Spanish Civil War against Franco and the Fascists, but he also was at odds with factions on the Republican side. "If I've learned anything from Orwell, it is to keep independence in your heart at all times because whether it's Tory or Liberal, or it's Democratic or Republican, all parties enforce a discipline that ultimately a free-thinking person just can't subscribe to," Shelden said. "Orwell said, 'If liberty means anything, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.' Today, I think on all sides, we're much more intolerant of that kind of dissent."

According to Shelden, Orwell wrote 1984 "as a warning. He felt that if someone didn't sound the warning loudly enough, eventually a lot of the freedoms that he cherished would be lost and people would wake up one day and wonder where they had gone." The lesson Shelden draws from the novel is that "if you aren't constantly vigilant about your liberties, on either side of the political spectrum, you'll lose them."

Shelden believes that we should be concerned about growing government intrusion in our private lives. "The problem is we don't have an Orwell today, do we? We need someone who can put these issues into stark contrast for us, so that we understand the exact threat that we're under." He went on to suggest if Orwell were around today and raising the alarm, "we probably wouldn't listen to him. But maybe he would say something at some point that others would pick up on and make a kind of rallying cry. It can't just be one person, it has to be a lot of people."

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