Huxlian or Orwellian? The Debate Continues.

I, personally, believe it will be a Huxlian society, rather than that of Orwell, mostly because of the lack of violence associated with Orwell’s vision. With Huxley, we get to keep all our goodies; something the public as a whole is VERY concerned about, leading to a mindset of ‘I’m just living my life. Who cares if I have to show my papers in order to travel between states. Who would want to, anyway?’ I recently read a post at morgansmusings that put it so eloquently, I’m going to post it in its entirety.

I’ve been seeing the word “totalitarianism” a lot these days. It’s not new for me. But when I see Jeff Wells writing about it, with utter seriousness, and with compelling evidence, as in yesterday’s post, I pay closer attention. I wonder how many others of us are thinking the same things. But. I confess that there is something about Orwell’s vision that doesn’t quite sync with what I see going on in the culture at large. I’m not talking about language repression, widespread disinfo campaigns, or militarism. There’s plenty of that, to be sure. What I don’t see is deprivation; what I don’t sense is widespread despair — and both are critical elements of Orwell’s dystopian vision.

I’ve been mulling this “un-synch” or “synch minus” (to employ a kind of Newspeak) problem over for a long time. At least, since the 2004 Presidential Election. At the time, I was working as a teaching assistant in a college writing class. The subject was Political Rhetoric and the Media, and Orwell’s 1984 was the first book on the reading list. I was eager to hear what younger people had to say about George Orwell’s work, and of the grim scenario he presents in the book. As part of their homework, students were required to watch the film version, the one starring John Hurt as Winston Smith, and then compare the two, always with a mind to the politics of language. It was a good class – interesting discussion. But.

It’s important to disclose that most of these students were incredibly jaded by wealth. Certainly, many were quite privileged. A couple had even met George Bush, and had attended school with his brother Neil’s children. Others in the class were self-identified “military brats.” One young man said his parents worked in the higher echelons of Enron. He had grown up in the Middle East, a rich white American boy. Early in the semester, I asked him if his family had suffered economic losses when Enron stock collapsed. I’ll never forget the incredulous look on his face. He obviously thought I must be slightly retarded for even thinking it. With a careless shrug, he said: “No, my dad heard about it way before it happened and took care of it.” I didn’t press him for details. I never spoke to him again, either.

Subsequent discussions on Orwell were revealing. The students were very interested in the concept of “Newspeak”, and marveled at the time and effort Orwell invested in creating an entire language. They wanted to know what made him write such a book. What had happened to him, they wondered, that caused him to imagine a world where Big Brother was watching everyone. We talked about Orwell’s deep fear of socialism, although, paradoxically, he was a socialist. We discussed the reality of living in a surveillance society, which they had already accepted as “the way things are.”

Did they think 1984 would ever come to pass? No. Clearly, these young adults considered the chance of Orwell’s dystopian vision coming to pass in present day America was virtually impossible; it simply could not happen. In general, they acted as though 1984 was a quaint book, useful for understanding political language and its perversions, but the novel’s scenario was hardly pertinent to their current or future lives. That gave me pause. And I’ve been pausing there ever since: why? Why didn’t Orwell’s totalitarian vision of a surveillance society waging a perpetual war, engaging thought police, mind control, and generating fake news frighten the leaders of tomorrow? Did they not see it was already happening?

Here I am, months later, and, like I said, still thinking about it.

Now, Jeff Wells has decided that America is already a totalitarian state but we just don’t know it. I understand what he means, and I agree with him. But there is still a problem, an “unsynch” if you will, with what I’m seeing or not seeing, in the culture at large. That is to say, I don’t see widespread deprivation and despair. Sure, people are griping about gas prices and the way Bush keeps sneaking his agenda past impotent Democrats. Sure, there are rumblings about impeachment. And down in Crawford, Texas, Cindy Sheehan is camping out, in hopes her protests over the Iraq War will bring the Bush Administration to its knees. Meanwhile the MSM talking heads speak derisively about Sheehan; Brian Williams, in particular, called her “that woman.” So what’s going on here?

The other night, I decided to watch 1984, and as I did, I tried to imagine the future landscape of the United States looking anything like the mise-en-scene of the film. It suddenly struck me that Orwell’s vision isn’t the one that will come to pass. Aspects of it will, yes, and already have done. The perversion of language, the disinfo, the surveillance, the militarism – the things that are easy to perpetrate on the unsuspecting populace – have already been done. But where are the squalorous living conditions? The bleak, blasted buildings? The chocolate rationing? The government imposed celibacy? The complete subjugation of individual will to The State?

I have to say I agree with my former students that Orwell’s dystopia certainly appears to be utterly unfathomable. I will go further: the level of suffering depicted in George Orwell’s 1984 will not manifest in The United States of America anytime soon, and perhaps never will. Realistically, I must qualify this statement by also agreeing that an apocalyptic level of domestic catastrophe, or a series of catastrophes, of the magnitude of 9/11, will bring us close. I do not hold such a high level of scholarly hubris that I speak in absolutes, particularly about totalitarianism. However, in my heart of hearts, I think it highly unlikely. Instead, I believe that, as long as people have ways to earn money and commodities to spend it on, we will somehow manage to keep living conditions pretty close to the status quo. Indeed, I will argue that the totalitarian vision presented in Orwell’s 1984 could only happen in the complete absence of capitalism and conspicuous consumption.

However, if we examine Aldous Huxley’s vision of totalitarianism, with sanctioned drug use, open sexuality (without consequence of childbearing), conspicuous consumption, and genetically pre-determined social status (which makes class warfare a moot social determinant), Brave New World creates a scenario that makes far more sense, in terms of American culture and values.

Americans are highly trained consumers – and they will do anything to preserve that right, that ‘entitlement,’ even going so far as to allow their president to engage in pre-emptive war. Anything to keep the suffering of war far away from American soil. Ideology and partisan politics aside, what other reason could there be for the average Joe or Jane to allow the Iraq War to continue? After all, war itself is so unreal! Our kids aren’t fighting. It’s the other guy’s kids. It’s those people on the other side of town. Never us. War is easy as long as it is happening someplace else and with someone else’s kids. We have no problem with this cognitive dissonance.

Many of us have already accepted that war is a necessary evil in a post-9/11 world. However, few of us are touched by the reality of war. To most Americans, war is an action movie plot, or a Game Boy program. No real blood. No real dead bodies. In fact, I’ve often considered that many Americans were initially undisturbed by George Bush’s jump-suited, “Mission Accomplished,” antics precisely because they fit so perfectly into the bizarre, larger than life, video game culture that defines our lives.

The Main Stream Media delivers images that we have become conditioned to anticipate, and even welcome, in a media-mediated society. Thus, we have accepted the delusion that, if we keep working and spending, life will go on. So what if there are troops in the streets – they’re keeping us safe! So what if we have to show our papers in order to travel to another state? It’ll keep out the terrorists. We have nothing to hide. We just want to get on with our lives. Aye – there’s the rub. It’s the “getting on with our lives” thing that makes us so vulnerable to totalitarian-style persuasion. But like I said, it won’t be the kind of persuasion that Orwell’s Ministry of Peace exerts on the unfortunate characters of Julia, Winston, and all the other thought-criminals of Oceania. It will be quite painless, really. At least, for most of us.

If culture can be simply defined as a shared set of values, it is fair to say that what Americans most value is our right to the good life. With that in mind, I think we should consider how easy it is to control people if you keep them fat and happy. If we accept that people are mostly concerned with maintaining the status quo, so they can continue to earn money, and spend it on luxuries, we should also accept the fact that the government will aid and abet them in their pursuits. Why? Because nobody is going to revolt against a government that gives tax breaks to the rich in times of war. That doesn’t, in fact, even ask for citizens to sacrifice anything for the war. Except for the poor, that is. And they don’t really count, do they? Second, as my Red State Sister is fond of pointing out – Americans have it better than anyone else in the world. And don’t we want to keep it that way? That is why the PNAC’s multi-theater war vision of the future will be so easy to implement. Not through deprivation and force, a la Orwell, but through the satisfaction of desire, a la Huxley.

Here’s something I read that is worth bringing to this discussion.

A while back, I read a fascinating book by Anthropologist Stephen Fjellman: Vinyl Leaves: Walt Disney World and America (1992), which presents multiple theses about the dizzying, disorienting, impact of Walt Disney World on American culture. His years of participant-observation style research at Disney World supports much of what I’ve already said about our consumer-driven culture and our problems with reality. In the chapter, “Consumption and Culture Theory,” Fjellman visits the Orwell/Huxley dichotomy I’ve just put forth:

“Postmodern culture is anchored in the breakdown of the signifying chain. The referential functions of normal, everyday language have been shattered and the signifier disconnected from the signified. Orwell wrote about one type of referential dismemberment, a relatively straightforward kind based on naked repression and lexical control. But the postmodern world is not Orwellian. It is Huxleyan – and the fortunes of signs, symbols, and human meaning have taken a different form” (299).

In seeking examples of symbols and meaning pertinent to a Huxleyan world, Fjellman cites writer Joel Achenbach, who analyzed the text on a package of Pepperidge Farm cookies to prove that people will accept any lie that feeds their perception of what is normal. Believing that a corporation as large as Pepperidge Farm (which is owned by Campbell’s Soup) would individually craft cookies is ridiculous. So why did the company design a machine that makes the cookies look like a human made them, and then confess to the fakery on the wrapper? Why doesn’t this bother us? Achenbach refers to this phenomenon as “creeping surrealism” – the general fear, brought about by manipulation of the narrative and public discourse, that “nothing is real anymore” [so why care?]. To wit:

“Americans … no longer think the distinction matters… lies have been raised to an art form in this country, information manipulated so delicately, so craftily, with such unparalleled virtuosity, that you can no longer tell the genuine from the fake, the virtuous from the profane” (Achenbach, in Fjellman 1992).

Fjellman takes the notion of unreality a step further:

“Human beings have been and are being decentered and fractionated, especially in the United States. Furthermore, the hyperreal is being forcibly exported around the world as the U.S. way of life and death. Living in a rich country, trained to expect an ever-increasing set of entitlements, and led to embody those entitlements not in any civic notions of the social good but in private accumulations of what George Carlin calls ’stuff,’ Americans insistently implicate themselves in this process.”

Satisfying our desire by acquiring things has become an American raison d’etre. We want fast cars, nice houses, cool clothes, exotic travel destinations, and the chance to become American Idols. Furthermore, it is precisely because we are conspicuous consumers, who believe themselves entitled to the ‘good life,’ that makes the continuation of the Iraq War and the Big Lie of 9/11 self-perpetuating.

As Fjellman argues, “As long as we act in terms of our shared symbolic universe, life – even if difficult – is explainable. Further, we will not threaten those who control the goodies.” He’s right! If you have a good job, a roof over your head, a car in driveway, food on the table, and can afford your medicine, why would you complain? Why would anybody want to rock the proverbial boat? Why care about people on the other side of the world, anyway? Their suffering is simply not real. Which is one reason why Cindy Sheehan’s protest is causing such a stir. It’s unpleasant. It’s disruptive. It’s a rude attempt to awaken people from their Soma-induced dream state and realize that war is not fun, not hip, not pain-free. As long as possible, Americans will resist the onslaught of reality. Perhaps it will never come – at least in the version that hurts and deprives.

As I see it, then, the problem with accepting a strict Orwellian future for America is that such a view ignores the American culture’s lust for ownership, and the need to carefully maintain the illusion of individual freedom of choice. The Huxleyan future, on the other hand, allows Americans to hold on to their illusions, along with their hard-earned collections of things. Remember that bumper sticker from the 1980s: “Whoever dies with the most toys wins”? It still applies. We’ve simply replaced it with a more appropriately virtuous, “Support Our Troops” – or “God Bless America.” Indeed, one might argue that the bumper sticker is just another commodity that helps to create, and to sustain, the prevailing cultural pastiche.

Finally, in support of my Huxleyan rather than Orwellian thesis, I’ll leave you with a quote by Neil Postman, from the foreword to his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business:

“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. 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. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny ‘failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions’. In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us. This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.” — Neil Postman, 1986.

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Epilogue:

It troubles me to imagine just how much we, as a nation, will put up with to sustain our lifestyles. I think that’s the ultimate answer to why the Germans let Dolphy take over, and certainly, why they let him go so far. It was just easier to go with the flow. Did history teach us anything? Does it ever? As intellectuals, we like to believe we’re smart enough to learn from the past. If that were true, however, George Bush would never have been installed. I don’t for one minute think the conditions that allowed him to steal the 2000 election would have been in place had we leftists been paying close enough attention, and had done the hard work necessary to keep Bush, and his ilk, out of government. We had the chance to vote him out in 2004, but it didn’t happen. Not enough of us got involved. Not enough of us put it all on the line. Too many people didn’t bother to vote, for godsake. It goes back to the 1980s “culture of greed” and Ronald Reagan. That is when the Big Chill descended on the anti-war movement’s Flower Children. When the Boomers became part of the Establishment they once despised, it was all over. There’s no going back now, not without the requisite suffering and deprivation. Are we willing to do it?

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