Sunday, February 21, 2010

Back When 1984 Was the Future

"Who controls the present controls the past ... who controls the past controls the future ..."

- George Orwell, 1984

One night back in about 1956 when I was only nine years old, my father roused me from my sleep and invited me to stay up late with him to watch a movie on TV. It was the original film version of 1984, starring Edmund O'Brien as Winston Smith, and Dad knew I wouldn't want to miss it because I was so fond of science fiction. (This is how I got to see things like Destination Moon and The Man From Planet X on our fuzzy gray 17" screen.)

A tale of life under a brutal dictatorship which includes brainwashing and torture might not be the sort of entertainment most parents would inflict on their children. But my dad, who almost certainly had read the book and knew what it was about, trusted me not only to withstand it but to understand it as well. He was introducing me to one of the core myths of our age.

In those days of Cold War hysteria the producers of the film felt obliged to present it as a cautionary tale about what life might be like if the Communists were to take over, just to insure that they couldn't be accused of questioning the authority of our own government. After all, Big Brother ruled over not just England but the rest of "Oceania," which included North and South America. The story implied not only that the USSR might absorb all of continental Europe into "Eurasia," but that the US and its allies would be transformed into a regime just as ugly by the demands of decades of prolonged conflict.

My dad, having recently fought a war against Germany, was more concerned about Fascism taking over -- perhaps in the person of a demagogue like Joseph McCarthy, who was currently raking people over the coals, destroying careers, and driving people to suicide in the halls of Congress. So Dad was attuned to the intentions of author George Orwell, who had clearly imagined the tripartite "balance of terror" that would hold sway over most of the rest of the 20th century.

Orwell's dark vision, in which civilization descends inevitably into a state of permanent war and the enslavement of populations, has haunted us ever since. But for much of my early life 1984 was in the distant future. To a child, 30 years from now might as well be forever, in another lifetime.

As we lived through the real history of those years, events played out both better and worse than Orwell dreamed. On the home front we seemed to still have democracy and freedom, at least in our personal lives. Life was good, food and entertainment were plentiful. Orwell seemed to have got the idea of the "telescreen" completely wrong. Instead of it watching us, we watched it. Instead of citizens having their privacy invaded, the government seemed to be under a public microscope more so than ever before. Television got Kennedy elected, brought the Vietnam War into the living room, called the Nixon administration to justice, and changed history.

But at the same time we lived increasingly under the threat of nuclear Armageddon. Orwell failed to include nuclear weaponry in his arsenal, but even in this he may have been accurate. In his view it was never the intention of the superpowers to destroy one another; instead, the rulers of each one used the continual threat of destruction as a tool to maintain power and control over their own populations. And so, even though the bombs never fell on us, they were always hanging over our heads and keeping us in line. With slogans like Better Dead Than Red and My Country, Right or Wrong, the rabid right could defend almost any actions in the name of curbing the spread of Communism.

Still, the closer we came to the fateful year, the more 1984 seemed to be a vision of some other reality than our own, an alternate "what if" universe in which things had worked out differently. It was like a story about how things would be if Germany had gotten the Bomb or the South had won the Civil War.

In 1982, all grown up now, I started making plans to have a 1984 party to commemorate the difference between the prediction and the reality. We would celebrate Ronald Reagan as Big Brother, discuss the politics of Emmanuel Goldstein (the fictional false enemy of the State), and drink Victory Gin.

I was dismayed when some of my friends told me they would come in costume as Alphas, Betas, or Gammas, revealing that they had confused 1984 with Brave New World, Aldous Huxley's variation of a dark future in which humans were "decanted" instead of born and were genetically altered into graded subspecies suitable to their roles in society. On reflection I decided this meant it was time to put the fear of 1984 to rest. People seemed to have forgotten to be afraid, which was the surest sign it had not come to pass. It seemed fitting that it was now Huxley's future that haunted us, because it seemed more like where we were headed, and because, well, it was still in the future.

A new version of 1984 was filmed -- in London and in 1984 -- with John Hurt as Winston Smith. It was very well done, but went largely unnoticed by the public. However, in the same notable year a sequel was published by a citizen of our Eurasian adversary ...

[Next time: 1985 and beyond.]

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