George Orwell’s name is being thrown around a lot these days. It should be Aldous Huxley’s.
Almost immediately, the press invoked George Orwell to characterize the drama unfolding around Edward Snowden’s revelation of PRISM, our National Security Administration’s digitally omniscient domestic surveillance program. A Google News search for the author’s name turns up a layman’s trove of cut-rate lit-crit. Consider: “Nevermind NSA, Big Brother is YOU” (USA Today), “Is Obama going beyond Orwellian?” (Al Jazeera), “So Are We Living in 1984?” (The New Yorker) and, ever the oracle, “Rand Paul: The Orwellian Future is Now” (Front Page Magazine). Amazon.com reports that, following the scandal’s break, sales of “1984” rose 7,000 percent.
And why not? Orwell’s dystopian novel has loomed large over the American grade-school canon for generations. So it follows that we’d turn to him for answers in times like these, and that the press would likewise be all too ready to wholesale his name as a catchall for Big Government gloom-and-doom. Orwellian — there’s hardboiled prudence in those valving syllables, making it the kind of adjective the media likes best: hyperalarmist and faux-sophisticated. Not to mention it’s safe: If you’re the editor at a high-profile media outlet — say one that receives public funding — why come out and say that using a perpetual war to justify wire-tapping civilians preemptively is faintly tyrannical when you could save face (and ink) by letting the gravity of Mr. Orwell’s name work over our collective moral compass?
But if we’re going to name-brand the post-9/11 immolation of the Fourth Amendment, it’s Aldous Huxley and not George Orwell who deserves the eponym. Semantically, the distinction is not a fine one, and the clarification would, after all, be appreciated by the man who gave us “The Politics of the English Language.”
In that essay, Orwell warned against language that, by virtue of its clumsiness, defended the indefensible: prefab phrases, equivocations, mixed metaphors, euphemisms, vague generalities — the kind of thing an old college professor of mine used to circle and write “HS” next to: Horseshit.
For one thing, if we’re taking “Orwellian” to mean something like “despotic,” frankly, the PRISM metadata collection program isn’t it. Disconcerting? Yes. Criminal? Arguably. But despotic? Like Pyongyang-despotic? Like grab-your-guns, your-children-are-being-coerced-to-turn-you-in-for-crimes-against-the-State despotic?
“In the end the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it.”
“The only recognized purpose of marriage was to beget children for the service of the Party. Sexual intercourse was to be looked on as a slightly disgusting minor operation, like having an enema.”
“A boot stamping on a human face — forever.”
Now that’s Orwellian.
And there’s the rub, because if the charge leveled against the president’s dragnet conjures the specter of far more nefarious crimes against humanity, then the reality of a bunch of pale-faced computer jocks being paid to rummage through our cookies seems, by contrast, wonderfully banal. Exaggerate the charge and the culprit walks.
Now, I remember reading through The Guardian‘s web page shortly after the Snowden leak broke. Listed at the bottom of the article were the top 10 “World news” stories trending at the time. Nine were topical, and therefore grim. Which might explain why my eye was caught almost immediately by No. 8: “Lion and puppy caught ‘kissing’ on camera – video,” a heartwarming feature about one Daschund’s unlikely bonhomie with a 500 lb lion named Bonedigger. Such sweet relief. In the days that followed, headlines blared about the government forcing its way into two of the world’s largest private digital repositories, Apple and Google, but God help me, I couldn’t stop watching that video.
That weekend, I sat watching MSNBC anchor Thomas Roberts interview Senator Bernie Sanders about the PRISM program (the Senator, going out on a limb: “I believe that most Americans do not want to live in an Orwellian society”). But just when the discussion began to heat up, Roberts pivoted to some breaking news about a Cheerios commercial wherein a white woman and a black man were depicted with their [reader discretion is advised] interracial child. I mean, can you imagine?
This state of affairs is, without exaggeration, pure, 100-percent Huxleyan (Huxlytic? Huxlatory?). Orwell’s nightmare was total government oppression; Huxley’s was dopey, depoliticized citizens drooling over a soft parade of frivolous distractions. Neil Postman got it right in “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” a book he actually spent a good deal of 1984 writing:
Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.
Forget those sinister telescreens gaping at us from the wall. Nineteen eighty-four was 30 years ago. Now we pay hand over fist for all kinds of pocket-sized rectangles that allow us to “Share” (read “advertise”) our Likes, our Friends, and the odd self-portrait we snap in a bathroom mirror. Orwell warned against a State that would outlaw love, but Huxley knew it was only a matter of time before society sublimated its deepest emotions into mere expressions of consumer preference.
So rather than bemoan our Orwellian future, why not embrace what’s Huxleyan about the present? Our leaders certainly do. (Those fingered by the Snowden leak are currently banking on it.) Nowadays, the scandalized needn’t wait for another politician to be caught with his pants down. Forget the NSA. Congressional votes can actually be bought and sold by arms manufacturers on live television days after schoolchildren are savaged by a psychotic toting a semi-automatic rifle and public outrage won’t last longer than gunsmoke. Not when any and all information is boiled down to digital ether, literally swept aside with the tip of one’s finger. Not with hashtagging and e-shopping and cat memes and 24-hour news and all the wonderful things a person can do with Ryan Gosling’s pouty face. What’s precisely Huxleyan about all this PRISM business is that if it hasn’t already, it too shall pass, and long before anyone picks up a brick.
But then I guess what’s really Huxleyan here is that right now I’m typing all this into a laptop from the quiet comfort of my living room, and not shouting from the hood of a car. And that a moment ago, when I just wrote that thing about brick-throwing and hood-shouting, some contractor for Booz Allen Hamilton was alerted to examine my metadata — and that, who knows, maybe he enjoys watching videos of animals kissing.