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last week’s revelations of the scope of the United States’ domestic surveillance operations, George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” which was published sixty-four years ago this past Saturday, has enjoyed a massive spike in sales.
Oceania’s surveillance state operates out in the open, since total power has removed any need for subterfuge: “As for sending a letter through the mails, it was out of the question.
By a routine that was not even secret, all letters were opened in transit,” the narrator explains.
Through this transformation, books become blunt and unsubtle, losing something of their art.
We might call it the Catch-22 of “Catch-22,” or, in this case, of “Nineteen Eighty-Four.”“Nineteen Eighty-Four” is not simply a cold counterfactual.
Thinking about Edward Snowden on Sunday, it wasn’t much of a leap to imagine him and his colleagues working in some version of Oceania’s Ministry of Truth, gliding through banal office gigs whose veneer of nine-to-five technocratic normality helped to hide their more sinister reality.
Holed up in a hotel room in Hong Kong, Snowden seemed, if you squinted a bit, like Orwell’s protagonist-hero Winston, had he been a bit more ambitious, and considerably more lucky, and managed to defect from Oceania to its enemy Eastasia and sneak a message to the telescreens back home.Regardless of the actual scope of the government’s snooping programs, the notion of digital privacy must now, finally and forever, seem a mostly quaint one.Meanwhile, words, as Amy Davidson points out, are manipulated by the three branches of government to make what might seem illegal legal—leading to something of a parallel language that rivals Orwell’s Newspeak for its soulless, obfuscated meaning.The Party is not interested in the overt act: the thought is all we care about.” The N. A., on the other hand, is primarily interested in overt acts, of terrorism and its threats, and presumably—or at least hopefully—less so in the thoughts themselves.The war on terror has been compared to Orwell’s critique of “the special mental atmosphere” created by perpetual war, but recently Obama made gestures toward bringing it to an end.Instead, it is a love story between Winston and Julia, a younger member of the civil service, and, like many great novels, some of its high points can be found in the minor moments shared between these two characters.Their first real meeting, because of its implicit danger, is one of the more breathtakingly romantic scenes in modern literature—a mixture of lust and decorum like something out of Austen.In the office hallway, Julia slips Winston a piece of paper, a dangerous act.Filled with nervous excitement, he returns to his desk and waits a full eight minutes to look at it.And, indeed, there has been a hint of something vaguely Big Brotherian in Obama’s response to the public outcry about domestic surveillance, as though, by his calm manner and clear intelligence, the President is asking the people to merely trust his beneficence—which many of us might be inclined to do.Even Winston, after all, learns to love Big Brother in the end.