It is a tribute to George Orwell that, entering the year 1984, his novel '' 1984'' so compellingly frames the public discussion. His coinages - Big Brother, Newspeak - have come to represent totalitarian oversight and thought manipulation in countless guises, from government to the media and workplace.Skip to next paragraph
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Viewed from the relative comfort, individual freedom, and persistent optimism of Western civilization today, Orwell's vision has not come about.
Of course, Orwell was writing after World War II. Memories of suffering from the mass delusion of the Nazi state were still vivid. How far the boots of communist totalitarianism would march was as yet unknown. ''I believe that totalitarian ideas have taken root in the minds of intellectuals everywhere,'' Orwell said of his 1949 novel, ''and I have tried to draw these ideas out to their logical consequences.''
His book was a projection, not a prophecy. He depicted the negative utopia, contrary to the basic instincts of man, that would result from total state domination of the individual.
Ironically, it was literature itself that Orwell made the final holdout against totalitarian thought control. Translation of Shakespeare, Milton, Swift, Byron, and Dickens into a language devoid of such concepts as equality would take until the year 2050, he concluded at the end of ''1984.'' Obviously, he thought of himself in that tradition of writers who believed in the expansiveness of human vision, not its contraction. And yet Orwell like others of his time despaired at the collision of freedom and repression he was witnessing.
It is not to ignore the peoples enduring repression of civil liberties, of the opportunity for a homeland, of economic exploitation in the West - Latin America, Africa, the Middle East - to emphasize the health of free, democratic society at the end of 1983. Among Americans, freedom is prized above all else. Sixty-two percent of Americans, in a recent New York Times survey, volunteered freedom generally or specific freedoms like free speech as what made them most proud of their country - well above pride in their standard of living or the economy.
''The concept of political equality no longer existed,'' Orwell wrote of his projected 1984 society. That can hardly be said of the American democracy as it enters its 1984 political year. Candidates and public are ready to debate any domestic or foreign-affairs issue, no holds barred. Though the US campaign process is far from perfect, no one can possibly say the public will not make the decisions it chooses to make. Equal vigor characterizes other democracies.
However, political equality is far from universal today. Repressive regimes in the Philippines, South Korea, in the sweep of Asian countries from North Korea across China and the Soviet Union to Poland, are evidence that the collision between societies founded on individual freedom and those based on the state's supremacy continues. Even within democracies, curbing the power of big government, big business, big labor, big media preoccupies many citizens. Technology like the computer, which frees many workers from tedious tasks, can seem to enslave others into work routines not unlike the regimented piecework of the older industrial era.
The potential stupidity, the wastefulness, the brutality of the state was characterized by Orwell in an essay on the shooting of a magnificent elephant in Burma because a bureacracy - in this case the British occupying force - could not yield to simple good sense.
The process of making the state and major institutions work for the good of mankind, instead of the other way around, is surely not over.
But neither is Orwell's 1984 the 1984 we are entering.
We welcome the new year - we who are free to ensure his forebodings do not come to pass.