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‘1984’ can really teach us a lot

By Paqui Toscano, Editor-in-Chief

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I have come to realize over the course of my schooling that the books we are forced to read can actually be a riveting and interesting. Perhaps most importantly, however, is that these books can really give us some important perspective on our lives. OK, so I recognize that we’re forced to read our fair share of boring books. There’s Great Expectations and then The Scarlet Letter, The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail and, of course, The Old Man and the Sea. But then again, we’re assigned some interesting books, too, including To Kill A Mockingbird, Animal Farm, Of Mice and Men and Oedipus the King.

Besides being great books, these books offer some great lessons. However, no book pertains more to American society today than 1984 (with perhaps the exception of To Kill a Mockingbird, which I think pertains to everything). Let me explain.

The horrors of the Party as Orwell describes them in 1984 are many and extreme. Within the first two pages of this classic the reader learns about telescreens, the Thought Police, and the poor conditions that the people of Oceania are condemned to. Later in the book, the reader learns about the Ministry of Truth, where facts and information are falsified; the Ministry of Love, where unbearable torture is carried out; the Lottery, where few people are actually paid; and, of course, the lack of pleasure in this society – sexual and personal. Clearly there is no enjoyment – no time for oneself. This is the dystopian society that Orwell creates in his timeless tale.

Perhaps the real focus comes down to the word “timeless” because that’s truly the point of 1984. Yes, Orwell lived through and saw the horrors of men such as Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. To his audiences at this time, Orwell was referring to these countries (the description of Big Brother with a black mustache really doesn’t do anything to disliken the comparison to Stalin). But this is a shallow conception of this great work. The real truth is that Orwell wrote his 1984 to relate to anyone, anywhere in the world. That’s the beauty of it – his message transcends time. The actual year “1984” has little relevance – only the concept that these horrors could happen sometime in the near future.

What we must consider is this: Is that “near future” planting its foot ever so quietly on this great country of freedom and equality?

Now, I want to make it very clear that I love this country and everything about it. America is a great place, with a great government, with an amazing Constitution, and particularly an amazing judicial system. I want to devote my life to the betterment of this country – a place where I feel safe, secure and at home.

That’s perhaps why I decided to write this column.

Is this country as free as we think?

Organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union and Amnesty International, U.S.A. really do have the right idea – “freedom can’t fight for itself” (that’s the official slogan of the ACLU). Now I’m not saying that I agree with everything that these two organizations push for and believe in, but I am saying that they’re fighting the right fight: even the slightest encroachment on civil liberties is a big one. Insidious and surreptitious civil liberty hacking has been a favorite of dictators and autocrats since the beginning of time. Before anyone knows it, governments like the Party have complete control.

And this idea, this concept, is why we must think introspectively on our great America today. Consider a few things: the Transportation Security Administration’s full body scanners at airports; the Patriot Act’s legalization of unwarranted wire taps; the habit of police officers going under cover and acting like fellows in crime when they really are trying to bust someone; coerced confessions; the death penalty; the movement to overturn Roe v. Wade and outlaw abortion (even though in many states they can only occur without regulation in the first trimester before viability); the fight to merge church and state in some situations; the waterboarding torture that has happened at Guantanamo Bay; unfair trails because of biased juries, inadequate counsel, race or a whole score of things; the eight-year ban on the funding of stem-cell research; and unwarranted searches and seizures that happen because police officers lie about it on the stand.

In a school setting, consider the searches with drug dogs. Now this is a bit different than the other things mentioned above; I understand that drug dogs are a crucial part of keeping us safe in school – and I respect the fact that administrators want to keep us safe. Although I do have 4th Amendment qualms, especially when they go out to the parking lot, it’s a necessary evil.

‘1984’ may apply more to America than is comfortable

Now let’s think back to 1984.

Are illegal wiretappings really that different than telescreens?

Do the TSA’s full body scanners sound a bit more like something the Party would do than the U.S. government? Government agents (without probable cause, no less) shouldn’t be able to see an image of a person’s naked body in a democracy.

Are undercover police officers really that different than O’Brien, creating crime and coercing confessions by misrepresenting themselves?

I would even say that coerced confessions are one of the greatest evils in any criminal justice system. Although the hope would be that they no longer occur since Miranda v. Arizona and Brown v. Mississippi, that is certainly not the case. In fact, they’re being glorified in TV shows like Hawaii 5-0 and 24. Do we really want our society to end up like Oceania, where men like Jones, Aaronson, Rutherford and Winston confess to heinous crimes that they didn’t even commit all because of beatings and police abuse?

Have state-sanctioned murders, often referred to by the euphemism of capital punishment, really changed that much? In 1984 there are public hangings; in fact the Parsons children want to see them, they’re excited. Barbaric, you say? Yet, there still seems to be a sadistic sensation among people when it comes to the death penalty. We still let people in to watch these men and women (although there are many more men who just happen to be African American) in their final, most humiliating moment of life. This truly cannot be humane. And still today we have people being tortuously killed by an electric chair or a firing squad. If we keep this up, we’ll be just like the Parsons children.

Wouldn’t outlawing abortion inevitably lead to something very similar to the Party’s abolishment of an individual’s control over Party members’ own bodies – the right to do what they want with them? The right to one’s own body is the most crucial right in our society. An outlaw on abortion amounts to slavery because women would be forced to give up the rights to their own body; inevitably then, all other rights would follow. This is what basically happens in 1984.

Isn’t forcing one religion on people, whether subtly or directly, the same as the Party abolishing the practice of all?

Aren’t the treacheries that happened at Guantanamo Bay – the electric shocks, solitude, sleep deprivation, horrendous beatings, injections, starvations, and the removal of comfort items – very similar to those that happen in the Ministry of Love?

Clearly, contrary to what Parsons believes, the trials Party-style are not at all fair. Now I believe that trials in America are generally very fair, but no system is perfect. Judges are biased, as were the ones who sentenced the Rosenbergs and Sacco and Vanzetti to death. Juries also have preconceived notions, and then there are the public defenders who often provide inadequate counsel, which results in an unfair trial for the defendant.

The eight-year ban on federal funding for hugely promising embryonic stem cell research has, in part, ruined the integrity of the scientific community, much like the Party eliminated the word science from Newspeak and eliminated the independent scientific community.

Last, but certainly not least, you have the Thought Police, who broke into Winston’s apartment and looked at his diary. That obviously would be a breach of search and seizure law in this country, right? But is that really the case? Many people, such as Harvard Professor Alan M. Dershowitz, believe that in fact police lie about violating the exclusionary rule all the time. (When Dershowitz asked a police officer why they do this once, the police officer answered, “Because we can.”)

Let me also say that 1984 has given me a new and rejuvenated view on gun rights, since the Party of Oceania does not allow anyone in the community to own a gun. Also, 1984 clearly displays the downsides and horrors of a community that’s moved too far in the socialist and communist direction. Is America moving this way now with the new Healthcare Law?

What really makes America great

So you see, 1984 really can teach us a lot. Above all, it teaches us that the not-too-far-off future is always closer than you think. This is not a partisan article: pretty much all of my best friends are conservatives (one in particular even likes Glenn Beck – scary, I know). Let me also emphasize that there are plenty of Republicans who I greatly admire: Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan, William Rehnquist, Sandra Day O’Connor, Lindsey Graham and John McCain. There are also some liberal people I’m not a fan of – Keith Olbermann, for one.

However, for some reason it seems to be the conservatives that think it’s OK to forget about Miranda rights. That it’s OK to not toss a confession because someone was not read his rights. That it’s OK to not toss out evidence because of an illegal search and seizure. That it’s OK to eliminate abortion. That it’s OK to pray in school.

But really, those things aren’t OK. And anybody who’s ever read 1984 knows it’s not. That’s why it’s such an important book – everyone should read it.

Things like alleged criminals going free because they weren’t read their rights, or evidence tossed because it was a result of an illegal search, or Jersey Shore, or the inappropriate parodies on Saturday Night Live, or clearly guilty people receiving legal counsel via state money, or people outside of the city council building waving picket signs – these are the things that truly make America great because they exhibit the rights that we as Americans have. 

Winston Churchill once said, “Those who would sacrifice liberty in the name of security, deserve neither.” That’s really what 1984 is about as it applies to America today. Just remember: every small infraction on civil rights is a big one. We can never forget that.

5 Comments

5 Responses to “‘1984’ can really teach us a lot”

  1. Matt Metzler on February 12th, 2011 10:12 pm

    This is a great column, Paqui! I’m not sure if you’ve ever heard of the book Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, but some of its themes are very similar to 1984, and it’s also about a dystopian society in the future that shares some eerie similarities with our current society. You should check it out if you have some free time – it’s a tough read, a decent amount of scientific stuff that mostly went over my head, but if you liked 1984, you’d probably like Brave New World, too. Keep up the good writing!

    [Reply]

    Emily Bruzzese Reply:

    Matt Metzler! Love to see your comment. Glad to hear your thoughts on Brave New World — I, too, got lost in some of the science of it, but loved it anyway.

    [Reply]

  2. Allie Hattery on February 14th, 2011 11:18 am

    Paqui, we can always count on you to enlighten us further in our reading. 1984 was the best book I’ve read in a while; you’ve just made it better.

    [Reply]

  3. Emily Bruzzese on February 16th, 2011 2:37 pm

    So glad that this one struck home with you, Paqui. I hope that more we read this year does so. (I am, however, extremely concerned that The Old Man and the Sea and The Scarlet Letter make your boring list. Perhaps a re-read this year is in order.)

    [Reply]

  4. Mary Kate MacLean on February 23rd, 2011 7:54 am

    Paqui! You didn’t like Scarlet Letter? (Although I understand the Dickens concern. Whatever moron decided how to pay him…) But also, isn’t forcing people all to have the same health care just another step in the direction of 1984? This takes away the choice and the risk of living. I’m not saying that I want people to go without care, but they should have choices. The government, working apart from the free market, has an incredibly unfair advantage over the free market enterprises. I’m not saying that the way things were was perfect, but nothing is perfect, and government intervention makes it worse. Plus, just because the government doesn’t FUND stem cell research doesn’t mean it can’t take place. Many private corporations fund scientific research that affects their product. I do not want MY money to go to funding something I find morally repulsive.

    [Reply]

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‘1984’ can really teach us a lot