Quote of the Day: 1984

You were so busy worrying about 1984 you didn’t notice you were living Brave New World.

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny β€œfailed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.”

In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us.

–Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death

Though I must say it isn’t necessarily either/or. We have created a culture that has spawned both an unprecedented attack on civil liberties from on high, particularly under the last administration, along with a reactionary anti-intellectualism that openly scorns the quest for knowledge, giving us the worst of both.

28 thoughts on “Quote of the Day: 1984

  1. I completely agree, and have said similar; albeit not as eloquently.

    Still however, the questions remain:
    what can we do about it?
    Is it already too late?

    Oh, and is posting something like this blog a legal grounds for a charge of sedition, in the age of homeland security?
    After all, we waited for “thought crime” to be legislateable, yet lacking the technology to police it means “thinking at all” is on the cusp of being a criminal offense…..

  2. I completely agree, and have said similar; albeit not as eloquently.

    Still however, the questions remain:
    what can we do about it?
    Is it already too late?

    Oh, and is posting something like this blog a legal grounds for a charge of sedition, in the age of homeland security?
    After all, we waited for “thought crime” to be legislateable, yet lacking the technology to police it means “thinking at all” is on the cusp of being a criminal offense…..

  3. I think there’s a big difference between “civil liberties” and “anti-intellectualism” (as you defined it) in terms of impact.

    I perceive civil liberties as the exercise of a ‘right’. Since I’m not American (I merely live here), I don’t believe rights are inherent, but are granted by society. As such, civil liberties are always subject to the pendulum effect. I’ve definitely grown up in an up-swing; in a mere 55 years we’ve gone from de-jure segregation (Brown vs BoE overthrew that in 1954) through practical racial equality. No, it’s not perfect and we still have a long way to go, but we’re on an upswing. Similarly for sexual equality; it’s better than it was, but not perfect. Gay rights are now a valid concern and not dismissed out of hand. Exciting times!

    But the pendulum swings; as civil liberties increase in those areas we see attacks in other areas (wire taps; habeas corpus and so on). Should we accept these attacks? Hell no. But I believe the pendulum isn’t static; the center of the swing moves forwards. The worst of this backswing will still be better than the previous backswing. BECAUSE we fight it.

    I do believe that within the next 10 to 15 years civil liberties will again be on the upswing. We’ve entered a period of dark times and they’ll get worse before they get better. But they will get better.

    Intellectualism, however, isn’t subject to a pendulum effect. It’s linear and we go forwards or backwards in a line. Worse, we’re in a race. Create a generation of anti-intellectuals and progress is retarded. If we’re lucky we’ll maintain what we have. This not only hurts our civilisation (others may take the lead) but hurts humanity as a whole.

    In total I believe the anti-intellectualism is much worse for America than the attack on civil liberties; those liberties will be reclaimed… will we ever regain the scientific momentum?

  4. I think there’s a big difference between “civil liberties” and “anti-intellectualism” (as you defined it) in terms of impact.

    I perceive civil liberties as the exercise of a ‘right’. Since I’m not American (I merely live here), I don’t believe rights are inherent, but are granted by society. As such, civil liberties are always subject to the pendulum effect. I’ve definitely grown up in an up-swing; in a mere 55 years we’ve gone from de-jure segregation (Brown vs BoE overthrew that in 1954) through practical racial equality. No, it’s not perfect and we still have a long way to go, but we’re on an upswing. Similarly for sexual equality; it’s better than it was, but not perfect. Gay rights are now a valid concern and not dismissed out of hand. Exciting times!

    But the pendulum swings; as civil liberties increase in those areas we see attacks in other areas (wire taps; habeas corpus and so on). Should we accept these attacks? Hell no. But I believe the pendulum isn’t static; the center of the swing moves forwards. The worst of this backswing will still be better than the previous backswing. BECAUSE we fight it.

    I do believe that within the next 10 to 15 years civil liberties will again be on the upswing. We’ve entered a period of dark times and they’ll get worse before they get better. But they will get better.

    Intellectualism, however, isn’t subject to a pendulum effect. It’s linear and we go forwards or backwards in a line. Worse, we’re in a race. Create a generation of anti-intellectuals and progress is retarded. If we’re lucky we’ll maintain what we have. This not only hurts our civilisation (others may take the lead) but hurts humanity as a whole.

    In total I believe the anti-intellectualism is much worse for America than the attack on civil liberties; those liberties will be reclaimed… will we ever regain the scientific momentum?

  5. You say “we have a culture” as if we have only one.

    There’s a culture in the back streets of LA, and a completely different one with different values in rural Iowa. You might say they are very connected, but only in the same way that they are both connected to culture of the reindeer herders in Russia. Each culture has its extremists. Fox News certainly highlights them, but there’s probably more of a sliding scale.

    Also, both Orwell and BNW controlled people by controlling communication (using pain or pleasure at the individual level, of course). The goofballs on the internet and texting masses of teens actually may be a ray of hope.

  6. You say “we have a culture” as if we have only one.

    There’s a culture in the back streets of LA, and a completely different one with different values in rural Iowa. You might say they are very connected, but only in the same way that they are both connected to culture of the reindeer herders in Russia. Each culture has its extremists. Fox News certainly highlights them, but there’s probably more of a sliding scale.

    Also, both Orwell and BNW controlled people by controlling communication (using pain or pleasure at the individual level, of course). The goofballs on the internet and texting masses of teens actually may be a ray of hope.

  7. I’ve read some of Postman’s essays — I actually have one called “Informing Ourselves to Death,” which is a short one on essentially the same topic, in the research folder for the novel I’ve been working on. He’s easy to dismiss as a luddite, or just an eloquent curmudgeon, but he definitely has some interesting points. It’s possible today, more than ever before, to be getting more information than one can read in a day entirely from sources chosen, consciously or not, to reinforce our biases. And because those sources often claim to honestly analyze opposing viewpoints, it’s easy to imagine that you know what “the other side” actually believes, rather than what people who you already agree with believe the other side believes.

    I think Postman would probably agree with your observation that it isn’t either/or, though. He’d probably say that nothing is. As he wrote in “Informing”:

    Anyone who has studied the history of technology knows that technological change is always a Faustian bargain: Technology giveth and technology taketh away, and not always in equal measure. A new technology sometimes creates more than it destroys. Sometimes, it destroys more than it creates. But it is never one-sided.

    The invention of the printing press is an excellent example. Printing fostered the modern idea of individuality but it destroyed the medieval sense of community and social integration. Printing created prose but made poetry into an exotic and elitist form of expression. Printing made modern science possible but transformed religious sensibility into an exercise in superstition. Printing assisted in the growth of the nation-state but, in so doing, made patriotism into a sordid if not a murderous emotion.

    • Except that that printing press example is almost entirely horseshit. Claims about the medieval senses of community and social integration are almost entirely unverifiable, but works like the Decameron (~1353) strongly suggest that the social changes wrought by the Black Death at least started eroding the medieval social order long before printing was practical. Science stayed closely bound to religion at least as far as Newton and arguably right up to Darwin, and poetry was quite strong until WWI or thereabouts.

  8. I’ve read some of Postman’s essays — I actually have one called “Informing Ourselves to Death,” which is a short one on essentially the same topic, in the research folder for the novel I’ve been working on. He’s easy to dismiss as a luddite, or just an eloquent curmudgeon, but he definitely has some interesting points. It’s possible today, more than ever before, to be getting more information than one can read in a day entirely from sources chosen, consciously or not, to reinforce our biases. And because those sources often claim to honestly analyze opposing viewpoints, it’s easy to imagine that you know what “the other side” actually believes, rather than what people who you already agree with believe the other side believes.

    I think Postman would probably agree with your observation that it isn’t either/or, though. He’d probably say that nothing is. As he wrote in “Informing”:

    Anyone who has studied the history of technology knows that technological change is always a Faustian bargain: Technology giveth and technology taketh away, and not always in equal measure. A new technology sometimes creates more than it destroys. Sometimes, it destroys more than it creates. But it is never one-sided.

    The invention of the printing press is an excellent example. Printing fostered the modern idea of individuality but it destroyed the medieval sense of community and social integration. Printing created prose but made poetry into an exotic and elitist form of expression. Printing made modern science possible but transformed religious sensibility into an exercise in superstition. Printing assisted in the growth of the nation-state but, in so doing, made patriotism into a sordid if not a murderous emotion.

  9. Except that that printing press example is almost entirely horseshit. Claims about the medieval senses of community and social integration are almost entirely unverifiable, but works like the Decameron (~1353) strongly suggest that the social changes wrought by the Black Death at least started eroding the medieval social order long before printing was practical. Science stayed closely bound to religion at least as far as Newton and arguably right up to Darwin, and poetry was quite strong until WWI or thereabouts.

  10. Both of those books have a slightly weird effect on me: Most of the time, I can barely remember either of them at all. I don’t even remember the characters. But if I pick up either of those books again and skim through them a bit, I remember everything. (It’s very rare that I do that, though, because I don’t actually own either of those books; they were required reading in middle school.) Anyway…

    To me, neither of those books are particularly relevant to my life, but then again I’m largely cut off from both ordinary life and “the system”, and not entirely by choice. (By “not entirely by choice” meaning technically I do have a choice, but the alternative has severe consequences.) I don’t have much access to the “soma”, and it’s not much worth effort to access it even if I wanted to, so the pleasures of the Brave New World hold little sway. The threat of Big Brother, if it exists, is a distant abstraction compared to much smaller, more immediate, and very constant threats. Plus whatever freedoms I have are largely theoretical anyway – for example, in a purely legal sense, I’m free to travel to anywhere in the world I want to, but in practice, traveling more than 30 miles or so from where I live is hideously impractical. So I can’t evaluate how much the premise of either of those stories is relevant to people in general.

    As for anti-intellectualism… I don’t have much experience with that, and what experience I do have is mostly with internet trolls. But, as someone who is strongly aware of my own biases (in part because my perspectives with a lot of things is far out of the mainstream and I lack peers who share them), I have a strong curiousity about what biases other people have. Over time I’ve become somewhat good at ferreting them out even when the person themself is not aware of them. And a common assumption among the anti-intellectuals I’ve encounters appears to be this: Everyone is selfish and has an agenda, and smart people are better at manipulating others to serve their agenda – therefore, smart people are dangerous and can’t be trusted.

  11. Both of those books have a slightly weird effect on me: Most of the time, I can barely remember either of them at all. I don’t even remember the characters. But if I pick up either of those books again and skim through them a bit, I remember everything. (It’s very rare that I do that, though, because I don’t actually own either of those books; they were required reading in middle school.) Anyway…

    To me, neither of those books are particularly relevant to my life, but then again I’m largely cut off from both ordinary life and “the system”, and not entirely by choice. (By “not entirely by choice” meaning technically I do have a choice, but the alternative has severe consequences.) I don’t have much access to the “soma”, and it’s not much worth effort to access it even if I wanted to, so the pleasures of the Brave New World hold little sway. The threat of Big Brother, if it exists, is a distant abstraction compared to much smaller, more immediate, and very constant threats. Plus whatever freedoms I have are largely theoretical anyway – for example, in a purely legal sense, I’m free to travel to anywhere in the world I want to, but in practice, traveling more than 30 miles or so from where I live is hideously impractical. So I can’t evaluate how much the premise of either of those stories is relevant to people in general.

    As for anti-intellectualism… I don’t have much experience with that, and what experience I do have is mostly with internet trolls. But, as someone who is strongly aware of my own biases (in part because my perspectives with a lot of things is far out of the mainstream and I lack peers who share them), I have a strong curiousity about what biases other people have. Over time I’ve become somewhat good at ferreting them out even when the person themself is not aware of them. And a common assumption among the anti-intellectuals I’ve encounters appears to be this: Everyone is selfish and has an agenda, and smart people are better at manipulating others to serve their agenda – therefore, smart people are dangerous and can’t be trusted.

  12. lol this after a reading a post from a friend that just returned from her child’s reading day. she was horrified to find out that the teacher’s method of teaching reading was to encourage them to look at the picture and guess. the teacher explained to the parents that teaching kids to sound things out just took too long! the example given of a word that was hard to teach a child to sound out – cat. seriously.

  13. lol this after a reading a post from a friend that just returned from her child’s reading day. she was horrified to find out that the teacher’s method of teaching reading was to encourage them to look at the picture and guess. the teacher explained to the parents that teaching kids to sound things out just took too long! the example given of a word that was hard to teach a child to sound out – cat. seriously.

  14. I had to write an essay in response to this in high school. Probably one of my best essays, as I love both those books, have read both many many times, and agreed so much with Postman. But again, as others have said, it’s both/and.

  15. I had to write an essay in response to this in high school. Probably one of my best essays, as I love both those books, have read both many many times, and agreed so much with Postman. But again, as others have said, it’s both/and.

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