Welcome to what we all hope will be a happy new year. To answer the question of whether we’re there yet, we should try to figure out where we’re headed.
Is it “1984,” George Orwell’s 1949 book that highlighted a world of perpetual war, omnipresent government surveillance and public manipulation, dictated by a political system that persecuted individualism and independent thinking as “thought crime”?—a society ruled by an overarching Party that seeks power entirely for its own sake and is not interested in the good of others. Does this sound familiar to some of us?
Or, is it “Brave New World,” Aldous Huxley’s 1932 book, describing a different type of dystopia where people are manipulated by the State into thinking of nothing but their own pleasure. It could also be “Animal Farm,” Orwell’s previous 1945 work where the Pigs take over society and the government.
Think about that one. In this new American world of fake news and Russian hacking, we may be closer to the world described in any of these than we think.
I don’t know about you, but I spent much of high school and college trying to fake my way through having to read these books as part of English literature, because they were very difficult. “Cliff Notes” were a big help. Nowadays, they ought to be required reading if we want to understand the kinds of futures to which we and our fellow travelers on this planet may be headed.
Orwell’s idea of historical revisionism seems more relevant than ever. After decades of conflict and competition with the Soviet Union, and now, Russia, we have a president-elect who totally reverses course, not only in his admiration for ex-KGB villain Vladimir Putin, but also in his nomination of Cabinet-level officers like Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson for secretary of state, who has spent 40 years making big oil money with the Russians. Russian hacking? No problem, says Big Brother.
Rewriting history is all around us. Republicans now claim they were responsible for passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Not true—the fault lines at the time were northern legislators versus the southern ones, not by party. Because of this bill, the regional fault lines shifted and the southern Democrats of old are now the “new” Republicans of the south. Moderate Republicans of yore would have no place in the current Republican party.
Republicans justify blocking virtually everything President Obama proposed, by saying they were just copying Democrats during the Bush administration. This is true neither in word nor deed. President Obama’s appointments to office faced months of waiting before the Senate would consider doing its duty. Even now, he is leaving office with more than 100 judicial vacancies for which Republican senators have refused hearings, including a well-qualified nominee for the Supreme Court.
Under Bush, Democrats joined the vote to invade Iraq, cooperated with trillions in borrowing to pay for the war, consented to Bush’s nominees and otherwise kept the government running. Democratic legislators never once tried to shut down the government.
The distinction between fact and fiction is dissolved in the “societies” of “1984,” “Brave New World,” and “Animal Farm.” Today, the media is belittled and besmirched. Fake news on Facebook, other social media and on hate-filled blogs may be the equivalent of Orwell’s character Winston Smith’s rewriting of previous news articles to comply with the Party line, but berating the media, blacklisting reporters, or limiting media access will accomplish the same in our future.
One of Orwell’s main themes was that “Big Brother Is Watching You.” We should be concerned that Trump’s Department of Energy transition team wants a list of all civil service personnel “to identify which employees and contractors have worked on forging an international climate pact as well as domestic efforts to cut the nation’s carbon output” during the past five years.
Former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli spent considerable taxpayer money hounding a professor who worked on climate-related research. Trump’s transition team asked the State Department for details on programs aimed at benefiting women around the world, including identifying staff members who worked to reduce gender-based violence and promote women in the workplace. Several Obama administration officials called that query chilling and the request was withdrawn after it was widely criticized. This will not be a world in which whistleblowers can speak truth to power.
We may not be there yet, but the critical thinkers and writers of the last generation have given us tools with which to protect ourselves by helping us recognize the dystopias they described—their insights should give us pause. We have an opportunity, and an obligation, to test ourselves against our own standards of government, civility and generosity.
Be vigilant, stay informed, do your fact-checking, and vote in your own self -interest, for only you can prevent these stories of a dark future from coming true. Dare we have hope for 2017? “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men [and women] to do nothing.”
Note: Reprinted with author’s permission and originally appearing here.