Saturday, February 4, 2017

Orwell or Huxley?

Tom Nichols is a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College and an adjunct professor in the Harvard Extension School. He writes an interesting piece at The Federalist in which he notes that those who fear that President Trump is Big Brother in George Orwell's 1984 simply don't understand either 1984 or Donald Trump. Our real concern should be how close we are approximating Aldous Huxley's Brave New World.

1984, Nichols writes, portrays a strictly regimented, highly organized state run by Stalinist intellectuals who think they're smarter than everyone else. Trump's people, Nichols scoffs, are neither highly organized nor are they intellectuals:
[T]he Inner Party of Orwell’s totalitarian state is founded on a collectivist nightmare called “Ingsoc,” dreamed up by intellectuals who believe they are superior to their fellow human beings. The book’s villain, O’Brien, implies he actually helped write a book called the “Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism.” It’s a forbidden text by a dissident named “Goldstein,” one that “1984”’s more daring citizens furtively pass around among themselves....In any case, O’Brien knows the book chapter and verse, even better than the traitors do.

Trump and his populists are many things, but they are not intellectuals. Their movement is about as organized as a yard full of fireflies. None of them are in danger of writing a book of any depth or meaning that might fuel a movement.

And finally, there is Big Brother himself, omnipresent and glowering, always watching, always judging, rarely speaking, a figure—again, modeled on Stalin—of superhuman virtue, intelligence, industry, compassion, and bravery. Father, protector, nemesis, demi-god, the actual Big Brother is never seen in person, a Wizard of Oz whose curtain is never pulled back. His mystique is central to the fear and awe he inspires among his subjects.

Trump is a lot of things, but he’s not Big Brother. He can’t stay quiet or keep off of Twitter for an hour. We know every tic, ever stray hair on his head, every odd gesture of his hands. We know his views at length because he talks about everything, in random order, incessantly. If this is our Big Brother, we have little to fear from a new “1984.”

No, if you really want to think about the dystopian novel that should scare you in 2017, you must go to the another school of dystopian literature, away from the gray totalitarianism of “1984,” and enter instead the sex, drug, and leisure soaked society of Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World.”

It is here, in Huxley’s grim but orderly vision of the future, that Americans should see themselves as closer to their own doom. Huxley’s World State is run by benevolent—or so they see themselves—tyrants enforcing a genetically engineered caste system, in which the populace is repressed not by violence but instead anesthetized by easy sex, ample supplies of euphoria-inducing drugs, and meaningless entertainment. Pleasure and hedonism, not violence and party discipline, are the mechanisms by which society is induced to submission.
In other words, it's not Trump and his foibles that should worry us. It's we ourselves.
The world of “1984” destroys Winston Smith by torturing him until he is capable of loving nothing but the state. In “Brave New World,” the hero—a man raised outside of the World State’s “civilization”—resists the pleasures of the new order, until he eventually submits and ends up filled-with self-loathing. He then saves the authorities the trouble of dealing with him by hanging himself.

The nightmare of a society debased by its own affluence and hedonism, increasingly turning both to drugs and suicide, is far closer to America under Trump. There is no need for Big Brother when people willingly withdraw from public life. Winston Smith took every spare moment to read, to write, and to meet his secret lover. But in a country where Americans fill their spare time with substance abuse, pornography, and moronic television shows, there are few Winston Smiths to be found—and no need for them in a state that doesn’t much care what anyone does, so long as everyone stays away from politics.
A people steeped in narcissism and pleasure, like the decadent ruling class of Panem in The Hunger Games, perhaps, has throughout history sown the seeds of its own destruction:
And if we’re lazy enough to become the decadent but efficient society Huxley foresaw in “Brave New World,” we could eventually fall to the conquest of more disciplined and martial nations. If that happens, then we do indeed risk emerging from the wreckage as the impoverished maximum security prison of “1984.” Of course, neither of these dystopian nightmares are upon us yet, nor are they inevitable.

One of the most endearing (and infuriating qualities) of Americans is that they don’t like to be told what to do. We retain a fierce streak of independence, even when it leads us astray. But make no mistake: we are killing our own sense of industry and independence on both the right and the left—yes, across the American political spectrum—and thus are far more at risk of sliding into the affluent but illiberal “Brave New World” than the regimented and disciplined world of Oceania.
Liberals will love Nichols' essay for his humorous description of Donald Trump's shortcomings. Conservatives will appreciate also his warning of the dangers posed by our culture's moral lassitude. Check it out.