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Monday, June 12, 2006

40 Minute Writing Excercise: Huxley V. Orwell

    We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn't, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.

    But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell's dark vision, there was another - slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley's vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity, and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

    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 "failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us.
    Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.

In modern times, there have been two great dystopic visions, each presenting a different path to the loss of true freedom, and indeed, to the loss of true humanity. George Orwell’s 1984 postulates an oppressive government that denies truth and places “the party” (or state) as the highest value. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World postulates a permissive government where truth is ignored as every citizen indulges in a literal orgy of hedonistic pleasures- where personal “happiness” is the only value. In the above forward to his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Television,
Neil Postman argues that Huxley’s vision is rapidly proving itself more prophetic. This, I believe, is a correct, though grave, assertion.

1984 was published just as the iron curtain began to descend on Eastern Europe. Just four decades alter- half a lifetime- that curtain was suddenly and finally shattered. What the fall of the Soviet Union shows us beyond all else, is that oppressive societies cannot eternally endure where men yearn to be free- all governments are composed of people, and if the people understand and desire freedom, eventually they will have it. Even in communist China- where Mao’s Great Leap Forward destroyed tens of millions of human lives- where tanks ran down protestors in Tiennamen Square- there are chinks appearing in the armor. To truly destroy all freedom, you must destroy man’s will for freedom. This is what is done in Brave New World.

The society of Brave New World reflects, in all too many ways, our own. The people have no morals, no values, and instead have adopted the value of the pleasure of the moment, what contemporary philosophers call the values of “personal peace and affluence.” Why wait when you can have it now? Why restrain (or abstain) when you can indulge? Why concern yourself with the greater issues of society? You don’t know what’s right or wrong- indeed, the philosophers have proven and the media has told you that there is no right or wrong. Sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. Bread and circuses. It makes no difference. Limitless entertainment possibilities exist to distract you. Millions of Americans will not vote, but you can be bet they’ll dial *87 to assure their latest favorite wins the aptly named American Idol.

In the end, many will see this empty way of life for what it is. But since they are unable to fill that emptiness with meaning despite their best efforts, they will beg to be deprived of the freedom to think. When “the last shadow of liberty quits the horizon” no one will miss it. As John Adam’s wrote, democracies aren’t murdered; they commit suicide. We are fast stringing up the noose.

Perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps, when my children’s generation, or my grandchildren’s, wake up to see tier broken lives, they will not seek to be rid of the freedom that accuses them but will return to it’s Foundation. But as long as we continue on this path to personal pleasure, Huxley’s Brave New World is not a story, but an epitaph.


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