Do you remember English Lit in high school with the assigned readings? Yeah, the summer school list as well as the books during the year we were all supposed to discuss. That's where I first came across George Orwell's 1984 (since I am a child of the sixties, born in '52, the impact of the book was/is different on me than it was for my children who may or may not have had to read it when they went to high school.)
I'd encountered Orwell through Animal Farm and 1984 was, to my way of thinking, a companion to Huxley's Brave New World, both filmed, we used to joke, in 'horror vision'. I loved and will always love Joseph Heller's Catch-22 and was surprised years later struggling, and failing, to fit in the US Air Force to realize Heller hadn't written a work of fiction at all. Probably not the first time I suspected I was part of God's punch line, but close to it.
The bleak, grey, joylessness of both 1984 and Brave New World, more so than the specifics of the narrative is what I can recall to this day. Community, Identity, Stability, the point of the State in Huxley's narrative could be the yearnings we have here in the 21st Century. In my middle Fifties now, I have a growing sense of unease as I watch those on the national political scene engage in zero-sum demolition derbies as the country I grew up in becomes another place where I don't fit in.
Not sure when I first flashed on it, but the United States has become Airstrip One as we have descended into Endless War. I saw a bumper sticker, 'we are making enemies faster than we can kill them.' When you have as much newspeak as we have, to stave off the dangers of thoughtcrime, a bumper sticker like that can eat at you. "Ignorance is Strength" suggested 1984 and we are the strongest nation, not only on earth, but in the history of civilization. Can't claim to feel a swell of pride about that as it seems to be happening despite anything any of us can do or are doing.
Our 2008 presidential campaign (which started (when?) about ten minutes after the results of 2004 were known) has at times resembled 'the two minute Hate' and we have months of this yet to go. Lots of slogans, lots of posturing--not very many solutions and even fewer possibilities. I keep looking for our version of Animal Farm's Snowball, fearful I may end up becoming her/him myself, but all I encounter are Nests of Napoleons.
The world we Americans know changed forever on 11 September 2001. We caught up with the rest of the world (pick a continent, any continent) in that increased suspicion, unease in looking at the future and 'shoot first, ask questions later' seemed to take priority over 'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.' Within our version and vision of newsspeak, the Patriot Act became the antithesis of what a patriot, as the founders used the word, could ever be. There are moments I can see Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson being fitted for orange jumpsuits and wonder how long Nathan Hale might have regretted having but one life to give if the last moments of it had been spent on a waterboard. Today is the 'real' commemoration of George Washington's birth and who thinks of it that way anymore?
Misgivings are no longer encouraged. Second thoughts can betray us. We follow the flag, even as we're swallowing our concerns as to what the flag stands for. Love me, love my dog. We all hope for the best, but plan for the worst and never speak of it because we know we never can. We hope, vaguely, for a better future and have no idea how to achieve it but convince ourselves that a particular candidate can deliver us from evil, Amen. Perhaps that's why more and more of our children only know of Kennedy as former talking head on MTV, not that there's anything wrong with that, or that we have always been at war with Eastasia. He who controls the past, controls the future.
Is that better than being 1984's Julia who explains to Winston the only way to save yourself from something you simply cannot endure is to make another person suffer? Perhaps. And as long as no one wonders about other choices, or why there don't seem to be any, we can always hope for Community, Identity and Stability until Kingdom Come.