Erich Fromm warned us that 1984 (1949) is not just a description of Stalinist barbarism, but that Orwell means us, too, in his dystopian novel.
In this and succeeding posts with the same title we will conduct periodic “State of the Dystopia” examinations in which we will review how many of Orwell’s prophecies (and in what way) have come true. In our time Orwell has become, if not a holy prophet like Jeremiah, at least a political prophet of say, the secular prophet Nostradamus. We study Orwell’s writings the way faithful Christians pore over the Book of Revelation to keep track of the oncoming of the Apocalypse.
To begin with the simplest, and most resounding of Orwell’s prophetic utterances: the building of the Ministry of Truth (Minitrue) in Oceania (see map below) was “an enormous pyramidal structure of glittering white concrete, soaring up, terrace after terrace, three hundred meters into the air.” On its white face, “in elegant lettering,” was carved the three slogans of the Party:
WAR IS PEACE
FREEDOM IS SLAVERY
IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH
“War is Peace” has been the constant motto of U.S. Presidents (and therefore perennial slogan of the nation) since Theodore Roosevelt. At the dawning of the 20th century (1897), in a speech at the Naval War College, Roosevelt argued:
Those who wish to see this country at peace with foreign nations will be wise if they place reliance upon a first-class fleet of first-class battleships rather than on any arbitration treaty which the wit of man can devise…. Peace is a goddess only when she comes with sword girt on thigh. The ship of state can be steered safely only when it is possible to bring her against any fore with “her leashed thunders gathering for the leap.”
At the beginning of the 21st century, in his remarks at the acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize, Barack Obama recalled the words spoken by Martin Luther King at the same ceremony in 1964: “Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones.” But immediately, like Peter denying his Messiah, Obama renounced the teachings of both Gandhi and King: “But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people.”
Obama’s recantation of peace upon receiving the Nobel Peace Prize would not have surprised Orwell. Already in the last paragraph of Animal Farm (1945), which he subtitled “A Fairy Story,” he had pictured what happens to revolutionary leaders when they ascend to power:
No question, now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.