I was asked to write a short column on Australian novelist Annabel’s Smith’s website:
…in which I invite someone bookish to share one of their all-time favourite works of fiction and what it means to them. This week’s Friday Fave comes from journalist and political writer Antony Loewenstein.
I remember first reading Orwell’s masterpiece many years ago before the rise of the internet and the mass surveillance state that is now ubiquitous. The Ministry of Truth and Big Brother have rightly entered our daily language as a way to describe the power of PR as news and spin as reality. The lead character Winston Smith is a classic hero, principled and torn, looking for love and fighting a system that both resembles a totalitarian nightmare (surely what Orwell imagined at the time of writing in 1949) but also increasingly the post 9/11 state in the West.
The book affected me the first time because it didn’t offer easy answers to existential problems. Orwell had seen war first hand, and lived through the rise and fall of Nazism, so a state using torture, threats and forced persuasion wasn’t an abstraction but a disturbing fear of what could happen without democratic resistance.
I believe 1984 is even more relevant today. Language has been bastardised by the corporate media and politicians. Torture has become “enhanced interrogation.” War has become “Operation Iraqi Freedom”. Orwell would be appalled at how little opposition exists to these changes.
What continues to resonate with me is how prescient Orwell could be just after World War II. He could never have dreamt of the internet, satellite technology or mobile phones, all devices that both liberate their users but also provide the most comprehensive way to track and monitor citizens in the history of humanity.
Would Orwell be able to write a sequel to 1984 and imagine a time in the 21st or 22nd century where privacy had completely died and personal time, with a lover, friend or family, must be conducted in secret, away from the prying eyes of the state? 1984 painted a nightmare, in moving and passionate prose, that’s well on the way to becoming today’s truth. And very few people are actively resisting the surveillance state so aptly described by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
We need Orwell alive again today to paint us a way forward. Most of our journalists and non-fiction writers are failing miserably.